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The Story of the Saint of Innocence 


Associate Editor of "The Queen s Work". 






Imprimi Potest: 


Praepositus Prov. Missourianae 

Nihil Obstat: 


Censor Librorum 



Archiepiscopus Neo-Eboracensis 


die, 31 Octdbris, 1921 

Copyright 1921 

Printed in the United States of America 



I. His BIRTH 3 

II. CHILDHOOD . . . . . . 8 


IV. EARLY PIETY .... 21 
HOOD 31 









XV. Vows 1 10 

ATE 119 







XXI. Pious PRACTICES . . . 










l8 7 


This little book is an attempt at a study and 
interpretation of a lovable young saint, whose 
tercentenary this year will, it is to be hoped, 
increase special devotion to him. Saint John 
Berchmans is recommended as a patron and 
helper in solving the difficult problem of 
maintaining agreeable and efficient relations 
with the practical life of the hour without 
cooling in faith and reverence, of making the 
love of God the dominant motive of conduct 
without sacrificing any of the courtesies or 
failing in human sympathies. 

I have depended for most of the facts in my 
sketch upon the excellent and exhaustive biog 
raphy of the Saint by the Rev. Francis Goldie, 
S.J. The English Jesuit drew a large part of 
his material from official processes and en 
quiries, and from the contemporary Life by 
Father Cepari, S.J., the Saint s superior and 
confessor. As far as facts go, I can, to use a 
quaint phrase^ be tracked in their snow. In 
the interpretation of facts I have sometimes 
allowed myself latitude. 


St. Louis University 
August 13, 1921 






IN the following brief sketch of the life of 
Saint John Berchmans there will not be 
room for an elaborate description of the 
rich historical setting which Europe, and espe 
cially the Brabant and the Rome of that time 
afforded. To tell the truth, there is not much 
call for it. The interest of John s life lay in 
its contact with the big affairs of another world 
than this. The Saint touched human life, not 
at its points of earthly splendor and impor 
tance, but at its less obtrusive and less impres 
sive surfaces of homely and domestic rounds 
of routine. The single hour of glorious life 
that is worth an age without a name, never 
came to John. Like most of us he was forced 
by circumstances into a pack-horse gait. His 
days, like ours, were much of a kind, singu 
larly beggarly in their opportunities for spec- 



tacular heroism. And yet he achieved 
heroism. With the scanty materials supplied 
by the stern realism of an ordinary every-day 
life, he succeeded in kindling a splendor which 
has burnt its way brightly through the mists of 
time, and, after three centuries, remains a fixed 
and steady glow in the night that has fallen 
upon the deeds of by-gone generations. 

Still, we may not altogether disregard the 
historical setting of the Saint s life, if we wish 
to translate it with some degree of accuracy 
into terms of our more modern life. When we 
learn that John was the son of a shoemaker, 
for instance, we are likely to form a mistaken 
notion of the conditions in which he wrought 
his sanctity. 

John was born March 13, 1599. Shake 
speare was living across the Strait of Dover, 
and the intriguing Queen Elizabeth was still 
widening the breach between England and 
Rome in the pursuit of selfish political ends. 
The town of Diest where John was born was 
one of those energetic Flemish cities which 
furnish so many stirring episodes in the excit 
ing pages of Froissart. The sturdy burghers 
were always stubborn defenders of their rights 
against the encroachments of kings and nobles. 



In the modern sense of the word they could 
hardly be called democratic. Like Oliver 
Cromwell and Hampden, they fought for an 
extension of liberty beyond the narrow con 
fines of court and castle ; but, with the wresting 
of their own rights from the tyranny of mon- 
archs, they lost all enthusiasm for any further 
enlargement of liberty and enlightenment 
which would include the working classes be 
low them. 

Charles John Berchmans, the father of 
John, belonged to a family of burghers promi 
nent in the affairs of Diest. He himself was 
a magistrate; his father and some of his broth 
ers had been mayors of the city. His wife, the 
Saint s mother, came of a family of burghers 
also, who on account of their wealth and con 
nections seem to have considered themselves 
the social superiors of the Berchmanses. 
Charles John Berchmans must have received 
an unusually good education, which he kept 
up afterwards in the intervals of shoemaking; 
for, on the death of his wife in 1616, he pre 
pared himself for the priesthood and was or 
dained in less than two years. In modern 
terminology we should call him a shoe-manu 



The Saint, given his father s second name, 
and his three brothers and sister, were all sent 
away from home for their education even 
while they pursued their youthful studies in 
their native town. Their parents were afraid 
their young minds might be soiled by the 
coarse and often loose conversation of the arti 
sans and apprentices who plied their trade 
under John s father in the family mansion, at 
the sign of "The Great and the Little Moon." 

The houses in those days were not numbered, 
as the reader of the famous third chapter of 
Macaulay s History of England is aware. 
There we learn that in London nearly a cen 
tury after the -birth of Saint John the houses 
were not numbered. "There would have been 
little advantage in numbering them," says the 
historian; "for of the coachmen, chair-men, 
porters, and errand boys of London, a very 
small proportion could read. It was neces 
sary to use marks which the most ignorant 
could understand. The shops were, therefore, 
distinguished by painted and sculptured signs, 
which gave a gay and grotesque aspect to the 
streets. The walk from Charing Cross to 
Whitechapel lay through an endless succession 
of Saracens Heads, Royal Oaks, Blue Bears, 



and Golden Lambs, which disappeared when 
they were no longer required for the direction 
of the common people." 

It is clear that the world of John s youth 
was considerably different from what it is to 
day. Making due allowance for such external 
differences we shall be able to reduce the un 
familiar conditions in which the Saint lived 
to something like their modern equivalents. 
One thing has not changed since then, and that 
is human nature. Its difficulties are substan 
tially the same in every age amid the constant 
shifting of externals. 



WHEN John Berchmans died he was 
just entering upon manhood. His 
schoolmasters and many of his rela 
tions and boyhood friends were still living. 
Their sworn testimony before ecclesiastical 
tribunals investigating the life of the Saint has 
left a record of significant details from which 
it is possible to obtain a fairly life-like picture 
of his boyhood. 

It is, we must own, the picture of a very 
extraordinary child. He attended a day- 
school until he was eleven. If there was no 
one to let him in when he returned home in the 
afternoon, he would go to a neighboring 
church and say several rosaries by way of 
passing the time until someone had leisure to 
notice his ringing of the doorbell. His grand- 


mother tried to keep her seven-year-old grand 
son from rising before the dawn, and was told 
with precocious gravity that he must serve his 
two or three Masses before school-time. 
"What better place," added the remarkable 
little boy, "what better place could there be 
to win knowledge quickly and surely?" 

Children are always contracting some 
strange and hideous complaint to the conster 
nation of their parents. John developed a 
painful eruption which spread all over his 
face and made him for a while an object of 
general compassion. The fact that people re 
membered years afterwards that he never let 
out a whimper or cried during this distress 
ing per.od, shows what a strong impression of 
patience and grit the boy made upon his 

He could not, of course, pass through child 
hood without being a victim of the inevitable 
bully. Not being able to defend himself, 
there was only one recourse, namely, to claim 
the protection of his natural defenders. This 
he refused to do, setting his jaws to endure 
without complaint, jests and abuse which the 
witnesses describe as shameful. 

All through his life the testimony is unani- 



mous as to his natural sweetness of temper. 
He was seldom seen on the street with other 
children. His mother, who became a con 
firmed invalid when he was nine, found him a 
cheering and helpful attendant in her sick 
room, and an efficient substitute in the care of 
the four younger children. 

At the age of eleven his father put him in a 
small boarding-school in Diest, conducted by 
a burgher named Stiphout. Although John 
remained in this school only for a year, his 
piety and proficiency in his studies made a 
profound impression upon his schoolmaster, 
who did the boy that terrible injustice, some 
times inflicted upon the helpless young by in 
discreet elders, of praising him before all the 
scholars and proposing him as a model for imi 
tation. It may be startling to learn that at the 
tender age of eleven John distinguished him 
self above the rest of the school in Latin versi 
fication. Even when we recall that Latin was 
the common tongue of educated Europeans 
at the time, and was taught from earliest 
school-days as the vernacular is taught to-day, 
anyone who is acquainted with the intricacies 
and pitfalls of classic verse will be willing to 



concede to the little lad great credit for intel 
ligence and industry. 

After his year with Mr. Stiphout, John, ably 
seconded by his schoolmaster, prevailed upon 
his father to consent to forward his eager am 
bition to become a priest. With this end in 
view, John was transferred to another school, 
organized and carried on through the personal 
initiative and efforts of Father Peter Emmer- 
ick, a Premonstratensian monk in charge of 
the Church of our Lady in the same town of 
Diest. This holy priest had turned the roomy 
rectory into a private boarding-school where 
he received and trained in priestly studies and 
duties a small number of select and promising 

John s record of almost preternatural good 
ness becomes voluminous during the three or 
four years spent under the careful tutelage of 
Father Emmerick. John, in the natural and 
inevitable course of things, was again placed 
in the very difficult position of being the mas 
ter s favorite pupil. The strange part of the 
situation is that John, without any particular 
effort, seemed at the same time to be popular 
with his fellow-students. He served Mass 
every morning, and it was noted that he en- 


joyed this common privilege of boys with un 
common care and devotion. It is a rather 
sharp criticism of the way boys often serve 
Mass that people remembered how exactly 
John used to pronounce the responses. 

In accordance with a quaint and pretty cus 
tom of the Middle Ages, a small boy took the 
part of the priest in miniature vestments in the 
chanting of the office in the parish-church on 
the Feast of the Holy Innocents. When John 
was chosen, townspeople cherished for many 
years the memory of the transparent innocence 
and holiness of the earnest child on this de 
lightful occasion. A stanza from the hymn 
sung that day in Lauds must have taken on 
new significance in the minds of all present: 

"Vos prima Chrtstivtctima, 
Grex immolatorum tener, 
Aram sub ipsam simplices 
Palma et coronis luditis" 

It is addressed to the slain infants of Bethle 
hem, who were the first martyrs of Christ. 
"You," it runs in English, "the first to die for 
Christ, tender lambs of sacrifice, you play in 
young unconcern with your palm and crowns 



in the very shadow of the altar." A most ap 
propriate song, indeed, at this beautiful medi 
eval pageant in which the principal figure, a 
lad of twelve, played the role of holiness and 
renunciation, with all the greater zest and ab 
sence of self-consciousness because it was to 
him a reality of spiritual aspiration. 

It is unlikely that this little boy fully real 
ized the life of martyrdom which a deliber 
ately chosen course of perfection demands. 
Many a boy and girl with noble instincts are 
attracted by the pure and clean splendor of the 
saintly ideal, the roses and lilies of the altar of 
sacrifice, and they play artlessly and prettily 
with the fateful flowers until budding passions 
and desires make them aware of the true 
meaning of the altar and the flowers. When 
they discover that the fragrant coronals are to 
be had and held only by stern and mighty re 
fusals they draw back from the altar and the 
flowers. Well, John in his young innocence 
may have played with the flowers without 
comprehending their solemn significance. 
But, as we shall see, he had the discernment 
to discover new and more wonderful beauty 
in them as their real meaning dawned and 


grew upon him; and he had the courage and 
the hardihood not to be daunted and driven 
from the company of the Innocents about the 
altar by the fear of sacrifices. 




I AM afraid the list of John s excellences 
while he was at Father Emmerick s little 
seminary will not prove attractive to the 
reader unless he stops to discover the principle 
underlying them. The most extraordinary pe 
culiarity noted by the stout and hearty Flemish 
observers in this growing boy was his air of 
detachment during meals. He was a healthy 
lad. Even in his young manhood, when hard 
study and austere practices tried his strength, 
and the plumpness of boyhood is often out 
grown, he is described as "of fair height, of a 
ruddy complexion, and excellent constitution, 
by no means thin." His departure from the 
normal boy s, lively interest in food was prob 
ably either a deliberate measure of conduct, or 
the result of spiritual and intellectual preoc 
cupation unusual in one so young. He ate 
sparely and perfunctorily, never criticised or 


complained about what was placed before him, 
so that his companions used to jest about him 
being off on his travels while he sat at table. 
It was the custom at Father Emmerick s to 
have some pious book read at meals, a task 
which very congenially fell oftenest to the lot 
of John. 

He liked to be in the church and to listen 
to sermons. He was never talkative and had 
to be driven from study by his master in order 
to share in the games of the other boys. Al 
though Father Emmerick declares that he 
never heard John indulge in an honest fit of 
laughter, he takes care to add the strange and 
apparently irreconcilable testimony that John 
bore the reputation of being a good-natured 
and merry youth whom the boys received as a 
welcome addition in their games. He posi 
tively refused to quarrel with anyone; when a 
row started he went off and played by himself, 
if he could not compose the difference. He 
seldom provoked the hot temper always on 
the spring in an absorbing game; when he did, 
it was always beyond his intention, and he re 
ceived the broadside as if it were directed 
against someone a thousand miles away. Often 
at the very pitch of excitement he would take 


advantage of the general distraction and with 
draw unnoticed to a quiet corner where he \vas 
sometimes surprised in prayer. 

Another detail will be of interest to Ameri 
can readers, who accept heat-radiators and 
abundance of coal as natural blessings nearly 
as common and as necessary as the air w< 
breathe. Even to-day in the continental coun 
tries of Europe, where coal and other fuels 
have to be imported, heating outfits are com 
paratively scarce. Few houses or large build 
ings are adequately provided against the cold, 
so that, in winter, necessity, which knows no 
law of propriety, forces the inmates to wear 
warm caps even in the house. Three hun 
dred years ago the hardships of a European 
winter must have been far greater than they 
are to-day, when chilblains and frostbite are 
ordinary domestic phenomena in such southern 
countries as Spain. We shall not be puzzled, 
therefore, to read that John s reverence for 
the priesthood was so profound that he had to 
be ordered peremptorily to keep his cap on his 
head whenever Father Emmerick was teach 
ing the class. To this list of remembered and 
recorded facts about John while he was at 
Father Emmerick s let us add one more, 



namely, that he was always looking for op 
portunities to make himself useful, often com 
ing to the relief of the servants by volunteer 
ing to do their work. 

Out of these scattered details what sort of 
living boy can be reconstructed? Here is a 
lad who, from twelve to fifteen, is described 
as being serious, thoughtful, studious, pious, 
austere and reticent beyond his years. So far 
it is a rather formidable picture, and we should 
be afraid of him were it not that the record 
insists so emphatically on the further fact that 
he was good-natured and popular with his 
companions. Boys know one another better 
than their elders know them. We have to 
ask ourselves why it was those boys liked him 
and forgave him for being pious and for be 
ing the teacher s favorite. 

The two virtues that boys can spot with un 
failing intuition, and idolize abjectly, are sin 
cerity and pluck. It makes little difference 
to them towards what ends these virtues are 
exercised, whether a boy stays up night after 
night to be first in his class, or subjects himself 
to an heroic regimen out of a stern ambition 
to be a great ball-player. They may have 
their own ideas about the particular ambition 


in the abstract; they may feel that it is foolish 
or hopeless or quixotic, and it may be all very 
funny and absurd to outsiders. But, if, after 
applying their rough boyish tests to an am 
bition of this kind, they discover that it is 
genuine and not to be discouraged by jest or 
torment or privation, they lift the young ideal 
ist up on a pedestal and when they go home 
boast about him at the family table. 

We can be sure that the boys in John s school 
took an accurate measure of his piety. Among 
boys there is a natural suspicion of anything 
extraordinary in the way of docility to teach 
ers and habits of religious devotion. I do not 
think this is due so much to a perverse nature 
as to the frequency of fraud or illusion in this 
particular field of boy life. Boys would like 
to know whether docility and religion are 
owing to timidity, or fear of punishment, or a 
desire to stand in with the authorities, or the 
hope of easy promotion, or an effeminate 
shrinking from the rough-and-tumble of life, 
before they give these qualities a clean bill and 
register them as admirable and commendable- 
All the accounts are unanimous in stating ex 
plicitly and with precision of detail that John 
was liked wherever he lived. When he was 



dying in a strange city his room was so crowded 
with friends that orders had to be issued to 
keep them out. They begged for the arduous 
privilege of staying up all the summer night 
in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the sick 
room; and when he died tears were shed 
openly in the lecture-halls and on the streets 
of Rome for the young foreigner who had been 
living there less than three years. 

All this is to be kept in mind if we are to see 
something like a living image of the Saint in 
stead of an impossible scarecrow that never 
existed. John s principles and conduct were 
inflexible and severe. His manner sometimes 
seems to us across the centuries hard and un 
inviting. And yet he passed the terrifying 
scrutiny of his young contemporaries, who 
voted him sweet-tempered and amiable, and 
conferred their highest and rarest gift of popu 
larity upon him. This is the big fact that 
stands out like a rock in the smooth current of 
John s outward life. It cannot be ignored; 
and every other fact has to be made to Har 
monize with that if John is to be other than a 
mere simulacrum and figment of the imagina 




IT is clear that John was what is known as 
a model boy. And we know that other 
boys are unpleasantly shy of a model boy, 
not always because they are unappreciative of 
rectitude but because, with a keen intuition 
based upon more intimate experience, they 
do not indorse the verdict of older per 
sons. They are not, as a rule, sufficiently ar 
ticulate to give their reasons for disliking a 
"model boy." In general they feel that he is 
not genuine, without being able to say pre 
cisely why they feel that way about it. The 
feeling puts them, in the eyes of their elders, 
into the false position of seeming to dislike 
goodness. . The so-called model boy shows 
them up as young reprobates simply because 
they withhold their approval of him. The 
.consequent sense of injustice is irritating be 
yond measure, and their irritation vents itself 



not only in reprisals upon the "model boy," 
but also, unfortunately, in a kind of discour 
aged defiance of all public standards of con 

Of course, I am supposing the boys to be a 
rather decent sort. At Father Emmerick s, 
and for the rest of his short life, it was John s 
good fortune to be thrown only with youths 
who were spiritual enough to harbor ambi 
tions for the priesthood. They could see that 
John was strict, not because he wanted to be 
better than they were or for any other reason 
except that he loved Jesus Christ, his Creator 
and Redeemer. In some way they could 
not fathom he had succeeded in realizing 
with an intense personal consciousness the 
infinite and tremendous love which Christ felt 
for him. They knew that Christ felt the same 
love for them, but they had not, as John had, 
the courage to face squarely and the grace to 
realize this sublime truth while accepting at 
the same time the heroic sacrifices which such 
a realization involves. Their response to the 
love of Christ lacked the ardors of John s 
love. But in their souls they knew John was 
right. They may have envied him his clear 
vision and resolute fortitude and the mighty 



strength of his love; but they never dreamed 
of envying him for the good opinion which his 
elders had formed of him. They were aware 
that John did not give a snap of his fingers for 
human opinion as such. For John there was 
nothing of importance in all creation outside 
of the wonderful mystery of Christ s love for 
him. John might have been harsh and remote 
and less human in his relations with them, and 
they would have forgiven him and respected 
him, because the impulses of a love respond 
ing to the love of Christ are the noblest and 
most generous that the human heart can ex 
perience. It is an adorable privilege to be 
near it and to watch it, even though it some 
times scorch the onlooker with a sense of his 
own ineptitude. 

As a matter of fact, John s natural sweetness 
of temper grew as he advanced in the super 
natural life. He knew how to invest sanctity 
with human charm. His severities and ardors 
neither got on his own nerves nor on the nerves 
of others. - , 

It was while he was at Father Emmerick s 
that he made his first Holy Communion. We 
hardly need this good priest s testimony to help 
us to imagine what a great event this was in 



the life of John. Father Emmerick declared 
that he wept when he was hearing the general 
confession of the twelve-year-old boy, and de 
scribes John on that occasion as an angel "all 
bathed in tears, as with the deepest contrition 
he accused himself of faults which were but the 
lightest." Indeed, the confessor tells us that 
he hesitated for some time in doubt as to 
whether he had sufficient matter for absolu 
tion. It is easy to believe him when he at 
tests to a superhuman look on the face of the 
boy at the sacred moment when the sacramen 
tal Christ visited him for the first time. 

It was not long after this great day that 
John wrote a Latin poem, which is still pre 
served in the archives of the royal library of 
Brussels. The boys were told to hand in some 
Latin verses and to choose their subjects for 
themselves. John chose the Name of Jesus 
and wrote some forty verses, a part of which 
the following lines reproduce in English. 
They are chiefly interesting as the effort of a 
saint s love of Christ to struggle into expres 
sion through the unfamiliarity of a boy with a 
strange language, through the difficulties of 
an intricate art, and the artificial devices of a 
decadent poetic tradition. 



a Not though Calliope gave me a thousand 
tongues; not though she gave them to drink 
at the fountain of Philetas; though the leader 
of the Castalian chorus should dictate my song, 
should I be able to tell the sweetness of His 

"Honeyed Name of names, laden with the 
sweetness of spring, sweet to the heavens, to 
the earth, to the salt sea! Full of good prom 
ise to men sweeter than any nectar that 
Hybla nurtures in its reedy cells, breathing 
perfumes of lilies and violets, of deep red 
flowers, of roses from Elysian fields; above all 
the glories of the field, more glorious than their 
scarlet or ethereal hues! 

"Hail to Thee, Son of God, old beyond all 
ages! Hail, All-Excelling! Never was word 
more grateful to our ears; never was name 
thought of like to Thine. Happiness of man, 
every way blessed the one hope of salvation 
for all mankind!" 

Anyone who feels a personal love of Christ 
will inevitably be drawn to her who by nature 
and grace enjoyed the privilege of knowing 
Christ s love and returning it beyond all mor 
tal and immortal creatures. John s love of 



Christ may be said to have thrown him into the 
company of our Blessed Lady. 

During the three years at Father Emmer- 
ick s his devotion to Mary was so conspicuous 
as to become a matter of general knowledge, to 
be accepted as a matter of course in the life of 
a boy so intent upon the dear mystery of 
Christ s love for him. The mention of her 
name could always fill his eyes with eager and 
glad light. Every time he passed a statue of 
her in the corridors of a house, or on the streets 
of the little Catholic city, he murmured a 
prayer to her. It was his fixed rule never to 
leave a church without having knelt at her 
altar. He began the practice of abstaining 
from a part of his meals in order to prove, as 
it were, that he, too, understood with her the 
delight to be found at the very heart of pain 
and privation when they are undergone for the 
Beloved. One of his companions at this time 
treasured in after years a translation of the 
"Salve Regina" in Latin hexameters which 
John made with much boyish labor. 

About three miles from Diest there has 
been for centuries a famous sanctuary of 
pilgrimage known as the shrine of our 
Lady of Montaigu. The celebrated Jus- 



tus Lipsius, whose manliness of charac 
ter is not nearly so obvious as his genius 
in classical scholarship, wrote a book about 
the Shrine of our Lady of Montaigu, and an 
other about the equally famous Belgian shrine, 
that of our Lady of Hals. John throughout 
his life had special devotion to our Lady under 
both these titles. The proximity of Montaigu 
to the town of his boyhood was to him a provi 
dential arrangement of a peculiarly happy 
sort. It was one of the greatest pleasures of 
his early years to walk there on pilgrimage, 
observing silence the whole way and occu 
pied with the saying of innumerable rosaries. 

One who spent so much time in the com 
pany of Christ s mother could not help being 
exceptionally pure of mind and heart and 
body. Everyone noted his sensitiveness to 
anything, no matter how remote or indirect, 
which might tend to lower his ideal of purity. 
There was no outer defense of modesty which 
he felt he could neglect in the safeguarding of 
his purity. He would not allow anyone to 
touch him: and whoever took liberties of 
speech or showed a careless mind and imagina 
tion he studiously avoided. 

This delicate purity of John s is one of the 



striking features in his life. There are two 
remarkable circumstances to be noted in con 
nection with it, if we are to understand it, par 
tially at least, and to admire it. In the first 
place we can hardly suppose it to be the inno 
cence of ignorance. A brutal directness of 
speech about the facts of life, arising perhaps 
from a certain coarse honesty more than from 
any licentiousness, and very prevalent in the 
early sixteenth century, would hardly make it 
possible for a bright boy to remain in ignor 
ance of the fundamental physical facts of 
human life. Moreover, the bluff and out 
spoken manners of Brabant saw little sense in 
discovering pretty synonyms for a spade. We 
have to keep this fact in mind in order not to 
be astonished when we hear that Daniel ex 
posing the two wicked elders was the subject 
of a play given by the boys at Father Emmer- 
ick s, in which John played the part of Daniel 
with a scorching disgust and indignation most 
suitable to the part and entirely unfeigned. 

The second remarkable circumstance to be 
noted about John s purity is that it was not 
tempted. After his death his confessors bore 
testimony to his freedom, seemingly miracu 
lous, from all sensual temptation. "I am not 



aware," he once said towards the end of his 
life, "of ever having had thoughts against pur 
ity or chastity; and, indeed, I have the great 
est loathing for anything opposed to that vir 
tue." He ascribed this happy condition "to 
the grace of God and the favor of the Blessed 
Virgin." His extraordinary care and precau 
tions in the preservation of modesty were not 
due to any preoccupation of the mind with 
animal sensations. His sensitiveness, there 
fore, cannot be truthfully described as morbid. 
Nor can he be justly called a prude or a prig. 
Prudes and prigs think only about themselves. 
John thought little about himself, but much 
about the Beauty of Christ. When he refused 
to allow anyone to touch him, he was not think 
ing of human customs and appearances, still 
less of possible sins. The beauty of purity, as 
set forth in the benign figures of Christ and 
our Lady, had captured his young soul, and 
created an instinct and a passion for a noble 
species of spiritual excellence. In the pursuit 
of this excellence he, as it were, developed 
antennae which helped him to detect the pres 
ence of, and to shun, the faintest approaches 
against his beloved virtue. The fine dignity 



with which this high ardor invests the boy 
even in human eyes shows how much we all 
were made to maintain the supremacy of rea 
son over passion. 




PERHAPS the worst blow John ever re 
ceived came to him in his fourteenth 
year. For the one and only time in his 
whole career we see him seriously disturbed. 
The younger children in the Berchmans 
household were growing up and had to be sent 
from home like John for their education. 
This additional expense, combined with a fall 
ing off in his custom and the prolonged sick 
ness of his wife, obliged John s father to make 
retrenchments and to study out some new 
source of revenue. When John was summoned 
home from Father Emmerick s to be told sadly 
by his father that his services were needed to 
sustain the family fortunes, and that his school 
days were.over, the news stunned him. All his 
habitual reserve and calm self-possession 
seemed to desert him. He flung himself at his 
father s feet in a paroxysm of tears. The out- 


burst is a revelation of ardent temperament 
for which those who do not understand the 
intensity of a saint s feeling, are not wholly 
prepared. When John recovered his speech 
he told his father that he was convinced God 
wished him to be a priest. If that ambition 
were altogether impossible, he was ready to 
accept the impossibility as a sign that he was 
wrong in his conviction; but, if it were merely 
a matter of difficulties, he was ready and eager 
to work his way through school and save all 
further expense. The interview took place in 
the presence of his invalid mother, who sided 
with John. 

The unusual display of violent feeling and 
strong purpose in the gentle and silent boy 
startled and impressed his father. The honest 
Flemish burgher was not prepared to strangle 
his son s vocation to the priesthood. But it 
was not to be cultivated at his expense. The 
good man had cast up his accounts and found 
it could not be done. If John could manage 
to pursue his vocation without being a drain on 
the family exchequer, well and good. Two 
maiden aunts, belonging to a class who are the 
fairy godmothers of young nephews, came to 
the rescue. Through their kindly offices their 



parish priest, Dean Timmermans, was induced 
to take the boy into his rectory and to prepare 
him for the priesthood free of charge. We 
have an exalted idea of the parish priests of 
John s native town and, indeed, of all the secu 
lar clergy, who for centuries in every Euro 
pean country kept the ranks of the priesthood 
supplied with excellent recruits by voluntarily 
performing the functions of seminaries when 
those institutions were comparatively scarce. 
But the family pride could not brook the 
presence of John in Diest in the role of a de 
pendent. After a few weeks, long enough to 
endear himself to the Dean, John was placed, 
through the efforts of his father, in a situation 
in the house of a prominent priest in the pri- 
matial city of Mechlin. It must be recorded as 
a contribution to the abundant testimony borne 
everywhere to the boy s remarkable popularity 
that his father and family incurred the dis 
pleasure of their townsfolk for sending him 
away. Mr. Stiphout, his early master, was 
particularly resentful. Many years after 
wards, when he was called as a witness in the 
cause of John s beatification, he made the pa 
thetic admission: "Life has been very bitter 
to me since I lost that holy child." 



The intentions of Providence to give John 
every facility for advancing in holiness can al 
most be read in the uniform excellence of his 
schoolmasters. Canon Froymont, grand pre 
centor of the cathedral chapter, in whose house 
young Berchmans was now installed in the 
double capacity of servant and student, was a 
large-minded and earnest priest who could dis 
cern, and accord encouraging appreciation to, 
the genius of a saint. His title meant that he 
had charge of the choir of canons: he was, 
therefore, a man of considerable local im 
portance. He employed the leisure, which his 
office allowed him, in conducting a school for 
the sons of people of good family. In limited 
numbers he received them into his home and 
trained them in manners and morals as well as 
in letters. It was an establishment much like 
Father Emmerick s, only more select socially. 
The fact has to be noted, since it bears directly 
on John. He belonged to the gentle class him 
self, and now he had to appear among his 
equals as an inferior and servant in a place 
where his family was not known. It was all 
well enough to do the work of the servants at 
Father Emmerick s; it was kindness and good 
ness of heart; but it involved no real humilia- 



tion, and was regarded generally as the juve 
nile expression of unconscious and graceful 
condescension. But here he had to attend on 
the wants and needs of the other pupils in 
order to earn his board and keep and educa 

John s genuineness in the pursuit of eternal 
interests was insensible to the petty annoy 
ances which worldly self-respect experiences. 
Canon Froymont was obliged to exert his 
authority to prevent John from performing 
menial tasks which were thought unbecoming 
to a student in his establishment. We are left 
to infer that the lad entered with a certain 
cheerful zest into his duties. "No dinner," 
we are told, "however little out of the common 
run, came off at any of the canons but Berch- 
mans was asked for, to wait at table." The 
testimony is not without value and helps us to 
correct a constant tendency to imagine John 
as an abstracted and solemn-visaged youth out 
of touch with homely realities. No such youth 
could by any stretching of probabilities be 
conceived as making an efficient and pleasing 
server at a festive board. Thus, John s popu 
larity followed him to Mechlin. The fact 
teases us for explanation; and the explanation 



is not easy. The boy cared nothing for popu 
larity, or for anything else except the love of 
Christ and the will of God. The direct evi 
dence of this singleness of devotion to super 
natural aims is in the very nature of things 
often stern and forbidding to eyes that watch 
him from a distance. We must supply the 
little concrete details of an attractive smile, 
an unaffected candor and sincerity, pleasing 
qualities of manner, an air of lofty ardor and 
high resolve, which made him lovable to his 
associates and friends in his most austere mani 

Canon Froymont soon relieved Berchmans 
of his menial employments and instead put 
him in charge of some of the very young 
pupils. It is hard to see how John found time 
for his studies when one reads his daily routine 
with these little lads. He awoke them in the 
morning, helped them to dress, had them re 
peat simple prayers which he had taught 
them, took them to Mass, instructed them in 
the catechism, grounded them in their ele 
ments, gave them the air on afternoon walks, 
and finally put them to bed after their night- 
prayers. Though it was a labor of love, one 



cannot help noting that John was certainly 
earning his way. 

The appreciative canon took to the prac 
tice of showing off John to his friends. The 
boy stood it with his accustomed tact and com 
mon sense. The wealthy acquaintances, whom 
Berchmans met while accompanying the 
canon, recognized like everyone else the 
youth s natural charm and were disposed to 
enter into further friendly relations with him. 
This, of course, would delight the canon. But 
John, without offending anyone, least of all 
the canon, contrived to maintain that reserve 
which his position and holy philosophy of 
life required. 

He kept his clothes mended and clean; but 
he thought old clothes were good enough for 
one in his situation, and the canon had to be 
peremptory before John could be induced to 
buy a new suit. 

On Fridays the canons, each accompanied 
by his servant, attended chapter-meetings. 
Canon Froymont always took John along. 
While the canons were inside, the young serv 
ants were wont to hold a less serious conclave 
of their own in the vestibule. This latter John 
never attended, preferring to spend the time 



before our Lady s altar in a near-by church. 
He found frequent opportunities how, it is 
not easy to see of stealing into some church 
to commune quietly with his divine Master. 
Nearly his whole Sunday was spent in church. 
Kneeling upright, he would hear three Masses, 
and never missed vespers or a sermon. 

We rather like the canon, and it is very cer 
tain John liked him. The grand precentor 
had a dog which he was training to retrieve in 
the marshes. The puppy had the usual preju 
dice of all young land animals against cold 
water, and John observed with lively interest 
how the pup s reluctance was overcome by 
small bribes of sugared bread. "Watch that 
dog," was his reflection expressed to a fellow- 
boarder, "conquering his natural inclinations 
just for a piece of bread. God ought to suc 
ceed in making us take some cold plunges for 
a reward of everlasting happiness." 

Another incident of this period helps to fill 
out our conception of John s character. One 
Sunday in the spring-time the canon and young 
Berchmans went on a pilgrimage to Montaigu, 
the canon on horseback, the favorite pupil in 
his role of domestic trudging along on foot. 
The roads were not familiar to either of them, 



and on their return in the evening two guides, 
whom the canon had imprudently paid in ad 
vance, deserted them one after the other in 
the middle of a violent storm. The two pil 
grims became lost in some thick woods, with 
darkness coming on and lightning-bolts shiv 
ering the trees all about them. The canon 
was unnerved. He dismounted from his horse 
and asked John to take his place in the saddle 
and lead the way. The boy leaped upon the 
horse and with cool composure forged ahead 
until they emerged from the forest on the edge 
of the town they were seeking. The canon 
tried to invest the episode afterwards with an 
air of the awful and the supernatural; but we 
have a shrewd suspicion that he was badly 
scared and was over-impressed by the coolness 
and courage of young Berchmans. 

Valor seems to be a common characteristic 
of all the saints. One doubts whether there 
was ever a saint yet who was dismayed by the 
terrors of the night or by the menacing acci 
dents of land and sea. 




JOHN was to take a plunge which his fam 
ily failed to regard with complaisance. 
The events leading up to it can be nar 
rated briefly. The establishment of Canon 
Froymont differed from that of Father Em- 
merick in one respect: the older students 
followed the classes in the archiepiscopal 
seminary near by, returning to the canon s 
house in the evening to prepare their lessons 
under his tutorship. John attended these 
classes until the autumn of 1615, when he en 
tered the newly opened college of the Jesuits 
in Mechlin. John thus brought odium upon 
himself and the new college among his former 
teachers ; but he knew his own mind and could 
be very independent and careless of conse 
quences on occasion. We are unacquainted 
with the grounds of his preference. One of 
his biographers tells us that the permission 



to change was wrung from the canon by John s 
entreaties; but, as the general attitude of the 
canon towards the Jesuits is known to have 
been friendly, it can hardly be supposed that 
John found much difficulty in having himself 
transferred to the new school. 

The Jesuits were not so familiarly known 
in the Belgium of that day as they were to be 
come later on. Their Order had been founded 
within living memory. The learning and 
sanctity of some of the members of the Order, 
and their organized and highly efficient meth 
ods in opposing heresy, spreading the faith in 
distant lands, and raising the standards of vir 
tue and intelligence in European centers, were 
no doubt borne to the ears of Berchmans on 
the wings of rumor and captured his young 
imagination. The fame of that brilliant 
Netherlander, d Hondt, known now as Blessed 
Peter Canisius, had very likely penetrated 
every corner of Brabant. John must have set 
foot in their school on the opening day with 
something like eager curiosity. It is interest 
ing to learn that his first impressions do not 
seem to have been particularly enthusiastic 
in their favor. At least he confessed after 
wards to a fellow-student of that time that he 


felt no attraction towards their manner of life. 

John was assigned to "Rhetoric," the highest 
class in classical studies, and won the highest 
honors at the end of the year. We learn some 
details about his ardor in his studies which 
make us regret that he was only a day-scholar 
at the college. Canon Froymont apparently 
shared the general belief, not without some 
foundation in fact, that boys could not study 
too much. At any rate there was no rule in 
his establishment curtailing the hours of vol 
untary application to one s books. And so we 
find the growing boy Berchmans seating him 
self on the edge of his bed, carefully shielding 
his light from the eyes of the other boys in his 
dormitory, and sometimes spending the whole 
night in poring over his text-books. It was 
an appalling indiscretion. We are not sur 
prised, therefore, to hear now a faint hint of 
a delicateness of constitution. 

Several original Latin plays were given that 
year, constructed, as the custom was, out of 
the lives of saints. In these plays, very ap 
propriately, John was selected to take the part 
of the hero of chastity. He had been given 
the role of St. Henry of Germany in one play, 
we learn, and had already memorized more 



than four hundred lines, when it was decided 
to relieve him of his part. The play was to 
be given in the open air before a large audience 
and it was feared that the exertion of en 
deavoring to be heard would impose a danger 
ous strain upon his voice and weak chest. 
When the decision was announced to John he 
said nothing; but a sudden flush betrayed his 
disappointment. From what we know of John 
and his contempt of the little vanities, it is 
easy to accept the explanation of a witness 
that there was included in John s part the 
Emperor Henry s solemn vow of virginity, 
which he had set his heart upon delivering 
with realistic sincerity before the assembled 
world of Mechlin to the honor of his favorite 
virtue of purity. 

It is much easier to study hard in order to 
win prizes or gain distinction or please par 
ents and teachers than to study out of a sense 
of duty and to do the will of God. Yet it is 
impossible to discover that John Berchmans 
was ever .urged along in his intense applica 
tion to his books by any other motive than a 
desire to please God and to fit himself for 
His service. This activity of holy motive can 
not be kept alive except by a supernatural life 



of a very earnest kind. If Christ and eternity 
and spiritual realities are to replace the reali 
ties of time as incitements to labor and perse 
verance, they must occupy a foremost place in 
our habitual consciousness. And this will 
never happen unless we train ourselves to keep 
them in mind by frequent prayers. 

We should know from John s outward life 
that he cultivated extraordinary habits of 
prayer even though there were no records of 
the fact. We are not surprised to learn that 
he sometimes prayed at his bedside long into 
the night, and that he eagerly availed himself 
of the opportunity of entering the Sodality of 
the Blessed Virgin, that famous training- 
school of holiness, still flourishing, which a 
young countryman of John s had started in 
Rome in the preceding generation. John 
made himself conspicuous by his efforts to in 
duce others to join the Sodality. He recited 
the Office of the Blessed Virgin every day 
lying prostrate on the ground in lowly fealty 
to her. Every Saturday and on the vigils of 
great feasts he fasted in honor of her, and out 
of a desire to do penance hunted up some dis 
agreeable work to do in the canon s establish 
ment, such as scouring the greasy pots and pans 



in the scullery. He went to Holy Communion 
two or three times a week this, at the time, 
was considered frequent and spent several 
hours in thanksgiving. On Fridays he made 
the Stations of the Cross out of doors, along a 
rough highway, in his bare feet. To do this 
without attracting attention he chose the hour 
of evening twilight, and put on an old pair of 
shoes and stockings from which he had care 
fully cut out the soles. 

This wonderful piety is not in itself a con 
clusive proof of real sanctity. Sometimes it 
makes people proud and fastidious and con 
ceited and hard to get along with. John was 
in all probability holier and more perfect 
than his teachers; but, if the thought of criti 
cizing them or condemning them ever occurred 
to him, it is certain he never encouraged it or 
acted on it. He put himself entirely into their 
hands in a spirit of reverence. When he had 
left the college in the afternoon he was no 
longer under their obedience; but, if they ex 
pressed their, wishes on certain points of con 
duct beyond the precincts of the college, those 
wishes were always respected by him. Thus, 
the college faculty were known to disapprove 
of public bathing, perhaps because it was too 



promiscuous or because the blunt customs of 
the times made the practice harmful to mod 
esty. It is not unlikely that John was in en 
tire sympathy with the attitude of his teachers; 
at any rate this was a form of amusement 
which his companions could never induce him 
to indulge in. 

Nor can we discover that John s relations 
with the other boys were made unpleasant by 
his high class-standing, his habits of piety, and 
his scrupulous devotion to the rules of the col 
lege and the wishes of his teachers. These are 
certainly dreadful handicaps to popularity. 
But here as elsewhere the evidence obliges us 
to believe that John was generally liked. 
Either he possessed wonderful tact, or his 
young, whole-souled earnestness in the pur 
suit of a high excellence was so vivid as to 
arrest their thoughtlessness and levy tribute 
of genuine respect and admiration. Of course, 
there was one exception. There generally is. 
After John s death one of the witnesses ap 
pearing before the commission gathering in 
formation about the Saint s life, averred that 
he used to torment John secretly while 
they were both going to the Jesuit col 
lege. He could not say why he did it except 



for jealousy or sheer perversity. Anyhow he 
declared that he did his best to make life mis 
erable for John Berchmans, who could have 
stopped the whole affair any time by a word to 
the teachers or to the boys. The young tyrant, 
now grown into a man, was moved by the 
memory of the boy s silent heroism to disclose 
a concealed chapter in John s life. 

John spent one year in the Jesuit college. 
His record during that time prepares us for 
the determination slowly arrived at of entering 
the religious life. It is a high testimony to 
the character of his instructors that the form 
of religious life which he chose was theirs. 




IT was not an easy matter for John to make 
up his mind to be a Jesuit. His parents 
would oppose him. They were waiting 
impatiently for his ordination when power 
ful family influence would be exerted to ob 
tain for him a benefice lucrative enough to 
enable him to restore his father s diminished 
estate. It was a question of comfort and social 
ambition rather than of pressing need, but 
hardly less urgent from the practical outlook 
of his parents. Moreover he had reason to 
anticipate as a result of his contemplated step 
the displeasure of his father s friends among 
the clergy, who naturally had sympathized all 
along with his dreams of John s future in the 
Church. As a matter of fact the archbishop 
and other ecclesiastics, whom John s father 
had enlisted in his cause, strove to dissuade 
the boy from his purpose. 



John arrived at his resolution slowly. Hav 
ing convinced himself that it was the will of 
God he became adamant. He had saved up 
we are not told how twenty-five florins. 
These he divided into three portions: one por 
tion he gave to the poor; the other two were 
spent for Masses at two shrines of our Lady, 
one of them being, of course, the beloved 
sanctuary at Montaigu. He began to hear 
two Masses every day and made a vow that 
he would carry out his resolution to enter the 
Society of Jesus. Then he wrote the follow 
ing letter, which is still preserved in the Royal 
Library at Brussels, to his parents: 

"My Honored Father and Dearest Mother, 

"It is now nearly three or four months that 
our Lord has in a most marked way been 
knocking at my door, and that I, so to say, 
have kept it shut. But when I saw that 
whether I played, walked, or whatever I did, 
one thing was always present to my mind the 
choice of a-fixed state of life I have come to 
the conclusion, yes, I am determined to serve 
our dear Lord, with His grace, in the religious 
life; and this after many a Communion, and 
many other good works. For, who is there 



who, seeing all the miseries, dangers, and fear 
ful sins in every state of life, is not filled with 
horror? And, again, when one sees those per 
fections, humility, etc., and lastly that burning 
love of God and our neighbor, how can one not 
betake himself to it? 

"It is very true it is some way hard for 
parents and for relations to give up their chil 
dren, but what would they do if our dear Lord 
may He long spare them ! should call them 
to Himself? Again, when sometimes I am 
thinking in my heart that if I saw here before 
me on the one side father, mother, sister, etc., 
and on the other, God the Lord with His, and 
I trust, my Blessed Mother; and those on one 
side should say, My dear son, I beg you, by 
the trouble and labor I have endured for you, 
follow me/ and on the other side Christ Jesus 
should cry, I have for you been born, 
scourged, crowned with thorns, and at last died 
on a cross: see here My five holy wounds! 
And have I not endured these for you? And 
do you not know that up to this time I have 
nourished your soul with My Sacred Body, 
and slaked its thirst with My Sacred Blood? 
And will you now be so ungrateful? when I 
think of this, my dearest parents, my heart so 
* So] 


sets me on fire that, were it possible, I would 
this very hour fly into religion; and my heart, 
my soul, will not be at rest till they have found 
their best loved Master. 

"But you will say, It is as yet too soon; wait 
till you have taken your degrees. I ask you, 
if a poor man were to come to your door to 
ask for alms, and you were wanting to give it 
to him, would you not take him for a fool and 
a madman, were he to say, I will come for it 
in a year or two? It is doubtful whether you 
would be willing to give it to him. Are we 
not all beggar men before the face of Almighty 
God? It pleases Him now, after much pray 
ing by me, to give in His goodness one of His 
best alms, that of a vocation to religion, and in 
particular to the Society of Jesus, the hammer 
of all heresies, the vessel of virtue and perfec 
tions; and shall I spurn the grace away with 
my foot and despise it? It is doubtful whether 
our Lord would allow it to last in me for two 
years; and then I might have to hear and 
what a misfortune that would be! I know 
you not. 

"So now, from my whole heart, I offer my 
self to Jesus Christ, willing even to fight under 
His colors. I hope you will not be so un- 



reasonable as to oppose yourself to Christ; but 
that, like the people of Egypt (who, as I have 
read in history, offered their children to their 
false god, the crocodile, to be devoured by it; 
and, while they were being devoured, made 
great rejoicings), so, I hope, you, too, will 
rejoice like them, and give God our Lord 
praise and thanks that your son should be 
found so worthy as, not to be given to God 
(for he does not belong to you), but to be re 
stored to Him. 

"I commend myself to your good prayers, 
that our dear Lord may give me perseverance 
to the end of my life, and may grant you with 
me hereafter eternal life. 


This is not a bad letter for a boy of seven 
teen. It contains clear marks of a trained in 
telligence. It is particularly valuable in 
helping us to combine into a living unity those 
two strong contrasts in John s life, namely, his 
grim firmness of character and the amiable 
sweetness of disposition which created a 
friendly atmosphere wherever he lived. One 
can easily perceive that in this letter his heart 
aches for his parents. These are not the words 



of a self-opinionated and selfish boy who is 
bent on having his own way regardless of con 

It is true, John is set in his resolution. He 
makes that clear enough. But he also indi 
cates that it took him a long time to make up 
his mind, with much serious reflection, earnest 
praying, and extra efforts at righteous living. 
This was no sudden whim nor spasmodic im 
pulse. He had reason to believe that it was 
not his own will but the will of God that he 
was following. At the same time, while the 
decision brought him unutterable happiness, 
he could not forget that his parents would most 
probably not be able to see the matter in the 
same light and would be sorrow-stricken where 
he was elated. The letter shows him entering 
into their minds with pathetic sympathy and 
painfully gathering together all his boyish 
stores of eloquence to bring them around to 
his view and save them needless suffering. He 
simply had to follow Christ; but, while he 
was forced to leave his parents, he longed to 
escape the hard trial of leaving them in tears. 

I S3 1 



JOHN S anticipation of a storm was not 
illusory. His letter fell like a bomb at 
the sign of "The Great and the Little 
Moon." His father came on post-haste from 
Diest and went into a long and animated ses 
sion with his son. It ended as we might ex 
pect. Then the poor man directed his steps 
to the Jesuit college with sentiments of resent 
ment which we can all easily understand and 
feel for. He called for Father de Greef, the 
boy s confessor, who has left an account of the 

"He urged," writes Father de Greef, 
"that he had educated John, at a cost far ex 
ceeding his means, to be the support of his 
numerous family, and accused me of putting 
the idea into the boy s head. This last state 
ment I absolutely and positively denied, as 
serting, as was the fact, that his son was the 



first, of his own accord and by God s guidance, 
to speak of his vocation and to consult me as 
to how he could put it into execution. I 
pleaded that I was bound to give him that as 
sistance by introducing him to Father Provin 
cial, a service which I myself would have 
wished for in similar circumstances. 

"I told Mr. Berchmans that I, too, had met 
with just such opposition from my father, who 
like himself was a shoemaker; for I was not 
merely his eldest, but his only son ; and, though 
he had exactly the same ideas about me as 
Charles Berchmans had about John, I had 
brought him around by strong reasons; that 
the temporal consolations parents look for 
from their children are little worth and un 
certain, especially when, not understanding the 
greatness of the heavenly gift, and without rea 
son or necessity, they endeavor to turn them 
from the path of perfection; I was sure that, 
as far as spiritual assistance went, John would 
be able to give much greater help to his par 
ents and relations in religion than by re 
maining in the world and taking some living or 
rich benefice, though he should by so doing 
seem to bring some relief to his friends in a 
worldly point of view. I recollect urging 



many similar things, and with a good deal of 
trouble, on John s father, who, though not 
without tears, at last seemed to give into my 

Father de Greefs story is an old story. 
Good, honest, kindly race of fathers who, in 
every century since Christ began calling His 
apostles, have heard His invitation to their 
sons as a knell of doom! Their sacrifice has 
been, for a while at least, more scarifying than 
their sons . Fond dreams have been dissipated, 
and golden hopes dashed dreams and hopes 
of their youth which had woven themselves 
into the inmost fibers of their being, which 
their own experience had missed, but which 
were to be realized vicariously in their bright 
and promising lads. Who dares to scorn their 
fury and their tears? It is very human, in 
deed. Yet seldom are human love and affec 
tion so disinterested and so pure. 

Father de Greef may have thought that his 
talk with Charles Berchmans had settled 
everything. But John s mother back in Diest, 
with something of an invalid s petulance, 
failed to succumb to the logic and good sense 
of the Jesuit, as it was retailed to her by her 
husband upon his return. On the contrary, 



she succeeded in reviving his opposition. He 
ordered his son to consult the Capuchin Fath 
ers in Mechlin, one of whom was a relative of 
Mrs. Berchmans. The Fathers were in 
structed beforehand to do all they could to 
shake John in his resolution. 

Although the boy was aware of the situation, 
he complied with the command of his father, 
confident that he could place his case in a light 
which Capuchins could understand and ap 
prove. One interview was enough. At the 
end of it the Capuchin community urged him 
to carry out his purpose. There was only one 
dissenting voice. His mother s relative, under 
family pressure, doubtless, refused to see the 
ftiatter from John s point of view, and every 
few days turned in at Canon Froymont s gate 
to have a talk with John and make a new effort 
to batter down the boy s determination. The 
proceeding must have become exceedingly 
tiresome to young Berchmans, for it led him 
to do a most extraordinary thing. His man 
ner towards everyone was kindly and consid 
erate; towards priests and religious his 
gentleness was tinged deeply with reverence. 
One is, therefore, startled to learn that John 
finally put an end to these visits one day by 



taking his relation by the arm and gently lead 
ing him to the door with the following ulti 
matum: "If you are determined to discuss this 
subject further, there is the door; you may go 
back where you came from." 

The Berchmans family now made a move 
which commonly comes next after issues of 
this kind have been clearly defined, and agree 
ment is seen to be impossible. "The boy s will 
is the wind s will," and there is always some 
hope that the strong currents of the world will 
be powerful enough in time to discourage the 
slow up-stream progress of the youthful ideal 
ist. The letter in which John refused to 
consider a postponement of his decision, is 
still preserved. 

"Ever Honored Father and Dearest Mother, 
"I am very happy to learn that you are in 
good health, and I hope and heartily pray 
our Lord God that He will always spare you 
all in the same. Still I am greatly surprised 
that you, in place of loving and thanking God 
for the great favor that He has willed to do 
not only myself but you also, in calling me to 
holy religion, and to such an Order, where 
men lead the lives of angels, that you, I say, 



should counsel me not to listen to our dear 
Lord, and to put off my vocation for five or 
six months. It is not right, as you well know, 
that in order to obey you I should be disobe 
dient to God. Our dear Lord, when He called 
a young man to follow Him, would not let 
him go to bury his father, who was just dead, 
though this was a good work, and one which 
needed but a short time. And when He called 
another, He forbade him to say good-bye to 
his friends, saying, No one putting his hand 
to the plough, and afterwards looking back 
wards, is fit for the kingdom of God. Why 
do you think He did this, if it was not to show 
us that we must follow our vocation then and 
there, without delay? 

"So then, my ever honored parents, that I 
may obey God our Lord, that I may make my 
salvation sure, and in fine that I may avoid 
that fearful sentence, I called and you refused. 
I also will laugh in your destruction, I mean, 
with God s grace, in a fortnight hence to share 
the joy of my brothers in religion. And I 
trust, through God our Lord, through the 
prayers of my brethren, and through yours 



also, and my own poor petitions, to obtain that 
He Who has given the good will may grant 
me perseverance to the end. 

"Your Obedient Son." 




THE summer of 1616, when John was 
resisting these assaults upon his firm 
ness, could hardly have been a pleasant 
time for him. His parents could not know the 
pain they were giving him, simply because they 
could not know the importunate urging of 
Christ s call in the soul of their son. Not 
knowing the clearness and loudness of those 
Divine accents they naturally supposed that 
John s resolve to enter the religious life was a 
youthful fancy opposed to his own and their 
best interests. They felt justified, therefore, 
in offering hindrances, and in appealing to his 
filial affections from a decision which seemed 
cruelly to ignore their rights and their natural 
hopes and expectations. Jofin was not insen 
sible to their plea. His heart bled for them. 
If they could only hear the unmistakable call 
of Christ ringing in his soul night and day, 


they would yield with tears of gladness, for 
they were good Catholic parents. John did 
his best to convince them of the authenticity 
of the Divine summons to a higher life. In 
deed, one cannot help wondering at his fail 
ure to convince them. His whole life from 
early childhood had marked him signally as 
one set apart by God for special service; and 
the letters, given in the preceding chapters, 
contain the clear traces of a cool recognition 
of God s special claims upon him, a recogni 
tion which had been tried by every test of 
serious reflection, long prayer, faithful per 
formance of duty, penances, good works, and 
expert counsel. 

John simply had to stand firm. There is no 
father nor mother living who will censure 
John to-day for having stood by his guns at 
this crisis, or who would feel anything but 
shame and regret if he had allowed parental 
considerations to deflect him from the pursuit 
of that beauty and holiness which his career 
reflects for the celestial refreshment of all suc 
ceeding lovers of purity and exalted spiritual 

John s letters are so self-revealing that it is 
important to reproduce, in spite of its length, 


another written at this time. His parents had 
asked him to come home to Diest for a last 
visit before entering the novitiate. This re 
quest developed a situation which, with our 
changed customs, we may find it difficult to 
understand. Canon Froymont had been all 
along annoyed by the obstinate opposition of 
the Berchmans family to what he and many 
others believed to be a remarkably obvious 
vocation. In pity for the boy he refused per 
mission for a visit which would only subject 
John to further suffering of a useless kind. It 
would seem, therefore, that John was bound to 
the canon by some form of indenture, com 
monly entered into in those days between the 
parents of a boy-apprentice and his master, 
which gave the canon a parent s right over 
John till his majority. 

John s letter is addressed "To his Hon 
ored Father, John Berchmans, Residing at the 
Golden Moon, Diest. Haste, haste, haste. 
Favored by friends." It would seem that the 
Berchmanses had moved from the sign of "The 
Great and the Little Moon" or else had their 
mail delivered at another house. One also 
notes that John addresses his father by his 
second name. The letter runs as follows: 



"I am very glad and rejoice greatly at your 
good health, in which may our dear Lord long 
spare you. I wish to let you know by this post 
that my master here does not judge it well that 
I should go to Diest, as you desire, and that 
for many reasons. I pray you then humbly, 
honored father and dearest mother, by the 
parental affection you have towards me, and 
by the love I have for you as your son, to be 
so good as to come here by Wednesday eve 
ning at the latest, either by the Mechlin coach 
from Montaigu, or by Stephen s conveyance, 
that so I may say, Welcome, and Good-bye to 
you, and you to me, when you give me, your 
son, back to God our Lord, Who has given 
me to you. 

"One thing, though, I should like very much 
from you, dear parents, for I cannot do it my 
self, and each hour of delay seems to me like 
a day; and it is that you, with my aunts, the 
two Beguines, and my brother, and any other 
good friends who are willing to do so much 
for me, and for my soul s salvation, should go 
to receive our dear Lord at our Lady of Mon 
taigu, and that you would offer me to her ever 
Blessed Son and to herself with the same joy 


of heart with which our Lady offered her Son 
Jesus Christ to God the Father. Should this 
act of devotion delay your journey here, I had 
rather you would defer it till your return. I 
recommend to you heartily this good friend, 
who for my master s sake and for me, does 
me the kindness (of delivering this letter). 
Treat him well. I pray you also to get him 
lodging at grandmother s, or in our own house. 
"Remember me most kindly to my grand 
father, my grandmothers, and above all to 
my special and best of benefactors, the rever 
end precentor, Van Groenendonck, that he 
may be good enough sometimes to think of 
me in his prayers, and to uncle Pellen and 
aunt Kathleen. I have still some little souve 
nirs which I hope you will take away with you. 
Pray for me, all of you, very heartily, that our 
dear Lord may give me perseverance to the 
end of my life. This recommendation I ask 
you to make to all my friends. I send it to 
them as an aidieu." 

At the end of the letter there is a postscript 
by Canon Froymont: "Mynheer President 
John Berkemans, do not fail to come the very 
first opportunity this week." 


His aunts, "the two Beguines," were so 
designated from a Flemish religious Sister 
hood of that name of which they were mem 
bers. They seem to have been the only per 
sons among John s numerous relations who all 
along tendered him sympathy and support in 
his high ambition, if we except the precentor 
mentioned so favorably towards the end of the 
letter, of whom nothing further is known. 

While we cannot withhold all compassion 
from the hard-headed Flemish burgher and 
his thrifty wife, we can see that there was 
nothing for them to do after a letter like this 
but to capitulate. It is a good thing to have 
a saint in the family. He may make it uncom 
fortable at times; but he keeps it from drift 
ing very far out of its divinely charted course. 
One cannot fail to observe that John s piety 
was not a pose, borrowed from a youthful 
fascination with saints biographies, an arti 
ficial adoption of poorly mastered formulas. 
The careful reader of these letters will find 
much to convince him that the seventeen-year- 
old boy was not employing the language of 
clever and facile reminiscence, but the straight, 
emphatic speech of experience and genuine 
feeling. He could be as hard-headed as his 


father. If the father was pleased to make it 
a contest of robustious common sense, he real 
ized that he had met his match in his oldest 
son. It is pleasant to be able to end this chap 
ter with the announcement that Charles 
Berchmans saw his son off to the Jesuit noviti 
ate with his parental blessing. There were 
still some reservations to his approval, which 
were to disappear completely in the course of 
the following year. 



WITH John s passion for perfection, 
arising from an intense love of Christ 
experienced from early childhood, 
we should conclude that his vocation to the 
religious life was a foreordained arrangement 
clear to himself and everyone else. Yet, we 
have seen how his family a pious family, 
too refused for a long time to recognize its 
claims. It is almost as surprising to find John 
declaring that his thoughts were first directed 
to the religious life while reading the letters 
of Saint Jerome. It might be supposed that 
he would naturally gravitate without the aid 
of books towards a form of life which offered 
continual opportunities of advancing in spir 
itual perfection and the love of God. It would 
seem that it is possible for a strong vocation 
to remain, as it were, held in solution till pre- 


cipitated by some chance hour of companion 
ship with a good book. 

One more interesting comment of John s 
about his vocation is on record. It is less as 
tonishing than the other and explains why he 
selected the Society of Jesus in preference to 
older religious Orders with which he was more 
familiar. Father Cepari, the Jesuit rector of 
the Roman College, the confessor and biog 
rapher of Saint Mary Magdalene of Pazzi 
and Saint Aloysius, and destined before his 
death to be the confessor and biographer of 
Saint John Berchmans, had published his Life 
of Saint Aloysius while John was still a school 
boy. The book fell into John s hands during 
his last year at college and was a revelation to 
him. He recognized a kindred spirit, master 
of the secrets of sanctity, and sensitively re 
sponsive to the same Divine ardors which 
warmed his own heart. This close spiritual 
brotherhood between the son of the Italian 
nobleman and the son of the Flemish burgher 
could be satisfied with nothing less than an 
avowed- brotherhood in the same religious 
Order. The youthful type of sanctity repre 
sented by Saint Aloysius naturally had a spe 
cial charm for John; he knew he could not be 


far wrong if the were to employ the same 
means of acquiring perfection and growing in 
the love of God. 

John entered the Belgian Novitiate on Sat 
urday, September 24, 1616. He was in his 
eighteenth year. Father Cepari s portrait of 
him a few years later ought to help us to vis 
ualize him at this time. 

"John was of fair height, of a ruddy com 
plexion, and excellent constitution, by no 
means thin. His face was really angelic, rosy 
and white, his forehead broad, his eyebrows so 
thick that they seemed to be black, and the 
same might be said of his eyelashes. His eyes 
were bright and lively, but bashful and full of 
goodness and sweetness, and ever going, down 
cast. His nose was regular and slightly aqui 
line, his lips small and very red. There was 
always a modest smile playing about them. 
His hair was light, and his upper lip and 
cheeks were (that is, five years later) just be 
ginning to be slightly covered with an auburn 

It is not unlikely that this picture, taken 
when John was entering into manhood, may 
err in some details of John s appearance as a 
novice. We know, for instance, that his health 



was not robust during his last year at college 
and during his novitiate. But, making due 
allowance for the angularities and uncertain 
ties of the growing years, we have the picture 
of an attractive and pleasant sort of boy in the 
young Flemish novice. 

A religious novitiate, whether regarded as 
a house or as a process, is something of a mys 
tery to the world at large. Like most human 
mysteries it resolves itself on close view into 
very simple and logical lines. The object of 
the religious life is to afford opportunities of 
cultivating spiritual perfection: the object of 
the novitiate is to instruct and train candidates 
for that life to detect and seize the values 
of its. carefully devised opportunities. The 
vows of chastity and poverty supply for the 
most part only negative opportunities by re 
moving encumbrances which distract from the 
singleness and directness of devotion to God s 
work. It is the vow of obedience which 
creates the principal constructive opportuni 
ties in the business of perfection. The main 
energies of novitiate-training are directed 
towards teaching the candidate the important 
lesson that the measure of his love of God is 
precisely the measure of his willingness to sur- 



render his own inclinations and will for the 
love of God. 

During the novitiate, in the very nature of 
things, the field for this self-renunciation 
which is the supreme test of the sincerity and 
sanity of love, is necessarily confined to a daily 
series of comparatively trifling duties, in them 
selves not onerous, but furnishing occasions 
for alacrity in laying aside one s will for the 
love of God. Human nature in its self-indulg 
ent moods is there being constantly annoyed by 
an intrusive and clamorous alarm-clock per 
emptorily banishing rest. The spirit of the 
response to this importunately recurring alarm 
will vary with the intensity and seriousness of 
the candidate s preoccupation with the love of 
Christ. The trials of a religious novitiate are 
all of a rather petty kind ; but it is safe to assert 
that no normal youth of any mettle will find 
it possible to submit to them for two years un 
less he recognizes in them splendid opportuni 
ties for trying out the constancy and ardor of 
his attachment to Christ. 

This description of the general atmosphere 
of a novitiate is almost necessary for an in 
telligent view of John at this stage of his brief 



career. It will explain, too, his eagerness to 
enter the novitiate, and help us to understand 
the nature and method of the heroic sanctity 
which he achieved in so short a time. 




JOHN was accompanied to the door of the 
Belgian Novitiate in Mechlin by Henry 
de Vriese, one of his school-fellows who 
was to follow him later into the Society. He 
was ushered into an apartment where he found 
himself in the company of another newly ar 
rived novice, named Theodore vander Meer, 
who had come from a distance. John shook 
hands with the stranger, got his name, and 
with boyish exuberance plucked up the droop 
ing spirits of Theodore, who was eight months 
younger than himself and far from home. 
"Come, brother," said John, "let us rejoice 
that we are in the house of the Lord. We 
must not be found unworthy of so great a favor. 
May both of us always live in this holy So 
ciety of Jesus, where God s service calls us; 
and may we meet in heaven after long and hard 
work, never to be separated again." As they 



turned to look into the garden, John saw a 
lay-brother turning up the soil with a spade. 
He flung his gray cloak over a chair and ex 
claimed, as he seized the astonished Theodore 
and bore him off to an exit, "There! we can 
begin at once; there is no better opening for 
religious life than humility and charity." 
Members of the community who happened to 
be in the vicinity, were then treated to the 
sight of two young gentlemen in traveling dress 
enthusiastically assisting a puzzled-looking 
brother to spade his garden. 

Later on in the day, when he had met his old 
friend Father de Greef, and ha3 been received 
as one of themselves by those assigned to take 
care of him for the first few days of his resi 
dence, the realization of his happiness was 
complete and he could not restrain tears of 
joy. We are told that he wept the entire eve 
ning from sheer delight. 

It has been said very unjustly of Berchmans 
that he was of a heavy and phlegmatic tem 
perament. Certainly his manner on the pres 
ent occasion affords no grounds for such a 
conjecture. Nor is it possible to maintain that 
the nervous and high-strung energy of his first 
day in the novitiate was due to the excitement 

[75 7 


of new surroundings. His eager mood falls in 
naturally with all that we have seen of him so 
far, his pre-eminence in his studies, his habit 
of flinging himself without reserve upon what 
ever undertaking duty or the inspirations of 
grace and good sense recommended, his un 
failing popularity with boys even when tra 
versing all their dearest traditions. It is im 
possible to form a definite and consistent im 
age of the young Saint now or later, unless we 
suppose him to be the owner of ardent and 
buoyant spirits, sensitively alive to impres 
sions and always on edge for every challenge 
to his courage and endurance in a finely con 
ceived service of God. 

With the instinct of genius he recognized 
in the rapid succession of small duties, which 
the order and rules of the novitiate imposed 
upon the will, a rare field for the exercise of 
the love of God and a test of his generosity. 
He was not deceived by the apparently trifling 
nature of these duties. Though each was as 
light as a feather, he knew the cumulative ef 
fect would be a strain upon the heroic resist 
ance of wills naturally prone to change and 
relaxation. "Perfection does not consist," he 
said, "in doing great things, but in doing well 



what obedience orders or advises." Many a 
lad who enters a novitiate braced for the per 
formance of difficult feats, experiences at first 
a contemptuous and humorous surprise at the 
petty nature of the demands upon his con 
stancy and generosity, and then passes by slow 
gradation from his mood of amused disdain to 
defeat in a despairing struggle with the little 
gad-flies forever urging natural inertia on 
ward and upward to the heights. 

John s high conception of the importance of 
small duties, and his singleness and purity of 
purpose in the faithful performance of them, 
are perhaps best attested by his eagerness to 
receive criticism and this is a most significant 
addition his genuine gratitude for any criti 
cism received. John and his fellow-novices 
each had an official critic, appointed by the 
novice-master from among themselves; and at 
stated times the novices so paired would meet 
and mention the small lapses from the rules 
which each had noted in the other. The op 
portunities ,for criticism could not be im 
proved, since they were thrown together day 
after day in a common life of great intimacy 
in which there was little privacy. John 
begged and obtained permission to have four 



critics instead of one. It was riot a priggish 
challenge, though we should not blame the 
four critics over much if they accepted it as 
such. We may suppose that it sharpened 
rather than dulled their scrutiny. Finally one 
of the critics caught John napping. Absorp 
tion in a difficult task made Berchmans forget 
about some minor duty. The critic called his 
attention to it; and, although we are told the 
fault was most excusable, was overwhelmed 
by John s gratitude. He was promised so 
many prayers by John that he set himself with 
renewed vigilance to put himself in the way 
of earning more prayers. It is recorded that 
he never succeeded. 

A still more extraordinary story is told by 
the novice-master. "After repeated requests," 
he tells us, "on the part of this excellent young 
man to have his faults publicly made known, 
as is the custom in the noviceship, I could not 
any longer refuse him this satisfaction; so I 
told all the novices, then more than one hun 
dred in number, to jot down and give me in 
writing any defects they had noticed in Berch- 
man s conduct. I got these notes, and on open 
ing them found that not one had been able to 
observe the smallest defect in him. This 



seemed to be a thing unheard of among so 
large a body of young men whose exceedingly 
delicate consciences to say nothing of a very 
praiseworthy rivalry and a vivacity suiting 
their years were well fitted to spot the very 
least faults in any of their companions, espe 
cially one who was the mark of more than or 
dinary proofs of respect and esteem. The re 
sult of this meeting caused much greater 
confusion to our humble novice than if he had 
been convicted of the gravest faults. We could 
not help pitying the sorrow which crushed 
him, and we tried to console him as though 
he had fallen into some terrible disgrace. All 
present were delighted and edified by his in 
nocence and humility." 

Father Bauters, who tells us this, was not, 
as we can see, without some shrewdness and 
sense of humor. But we may be permitted to 
suspect that he failed to enter completely into 
John s point of view. As a matter of fact John 
did disgrace himself. He had committed a 
tactical error in forcing a public avowal of 
his virtue which he had never anticipated. 
The path of sanctity is beset with occasions 
for the exercise of nice judgment. It is cer- 



tain John failed on the present occasion. How 
was he to know that a desire for humiliation 
was to issue in a distressing triumph? A saint, 
it is clear, must walk with circumspection. 



THERE is a current opinion that the 
piety of English-speaking Catholics is 
self-conscious and secretive, and supe 
rior for this reason to the more demonstrative 
piety of continental countries. A quiet and 
unostentatious piety, it is argued, must be 
deeper and more sincere. It would be inter 
esting to investigate the subject historically 
with a view of determining just how much the 
Protestant tradition of belittling the externals 
of divine worship has been responsible towards 
the formation of this opinion among the Cath 
olics of Protestant countries. In pre-Refor- 
mation England Catholic piety could be 
demonstrative enough without exciting com 
ment or suspicion. Doubtless, the fervent 
Latin temperament supplies some grounds for 
a skeptical regard of visible manifestations of 
intense devotion. But we must guard our- 


selves from the mistake of taking for granted 
that piety must be superficial and insincere 
simply because it shows conspicuously. 

The piety of the saints has always been os 
tentatious; not because they particularly 
wanted it to be ostentatious, but because they 
could not help it. All their attention and ener 
gies were preoccupied with God: what men 
thought of them never seemed to cost them 
much concern. This will explain why a boy 
like Berchmans could be revered by superiors 
and equals as an angel, and treated with un 
conscious consideration, without having his 
young head turned and without losing any of 
that freshness and spontaneity which consti 
tute the charm of his sanctity. There is no 
evidence anywhere that he was ever tempted 
to complacency or to the intrusions of self- 
consciousness or self-respect. His eye was 
single, and it was on God. There is a virile 
strong-mindedness about his piety. He had 
no time nor inclination for nonsense. The 
main business of his life was the service of 
God, which left no leisure for poring idly 
over human consequences, whether of praise 
or dispraise. Of the two he would prefer dis 
praise, if it did not involve offense to God. 



He was of sober Flemish stock, modified in his 
instance into an incandescent eagerness by a 
lively temperament and his wonderful love of 
Christ, but beyond the reach of any suspicion 
of theatricality or pose. 

Among the hundred novices, Dutch and 
Flemish for the most part, with a sprinkling 
of Irish and English, John was one of the 
youngest. Most, if not all, of them were utter 
strangers to Berchmans when he entered the 
novitiate. His extreme youth and attractive 
appearance and passionate thirst for perfec 
tion would, of course, win the esteem of young 
men whose ideals he so completely realized. 
But we should be mistaken if we supposed that 
this esteem was merely a sentimental admira 
tion which seniority indulgently bestows upon 
young and charming innocence. The recorded 
incidents of John s novitiate days are unusually 
numerous, and they all point to a forcefulness 
of character very remarkable in a boy of seven 
teen or eighteen. We are again confronted 
with the old difficulty of having to understand 
how John in some way, not easily compre 
hended at a distance of three centuries, suc 
ceeded in uniting sets of qualities ordinarily 


He had three nicknames, "the angel," which 
seems to have been the commonest, "St. Hi- 
larius," and "St. Laetus," the latter two sug 
gested by his uniform and unfailing cheerful 
ness. "The mere sight of him," one of the 
novices testified, "could dispel any fit of blues." 
Newcomers were wont to pick him out and to 
ask who that happy person was. "I lived two 
years with him in the novitiate," declared an 
other. "Well, I am ready to take an oath that 
I never noticed in him the smallest impulse 
of impatience or anger." The evidence is too 
emphatic to allow us to suspect that John s 
cheerfulness was the heavy, artificial kind as 
sumed out of a sense of duty, which the dullest 
eye can penetrate and scorn. We are obliged 
to concede a natural sprightliness of manner 
which gave touches of grace and beauty to the 
resolute purpose of the young novice. 

For he could be stern on occasion. John 
was in a small group of novices who were re 
calling the difficulties they had experienced 
in following their vocation. One of the older 
men in the group had broken off a marriage 
engagement at the cost of great violence to 
his affections in order to embrace the religious 
life. John thought he entered too much into 


unnecessary details, and did not hesitate to 
tell him so. "Have done, brother, with these 
particulars," he said, "they are quite right I 
am willing to believe, but surely they are little 
in harmony with the sort of life we have 

John could carry out bold measures with 
out stirring resentment or ridicule. On 
one occasion some novices near him fell into 
an angry dispute. John employed all his re 
sources to pour oil on the agitated waters. 
When he saw that the squall was beyond the 
influence of ordinary controls, he plumped 
down on his knees in their midst. The argu 
ment was swallowed up in the general amaze 
ment. "If I am in fault," said John, who now 
had the floor all to himself, "forgive me; but, 
I beg you, do not let there be a dispute among 
brothers." This spirited and rather sensa 
tional intervention came off successfully and 
peace was reestablished. 

John s qualities of leadership were recog 
nized when he was made "manuductor." The 
position* of manuductor calls for vigilance, 
sound judgment, and tact. The manuductor 
is the agent and representative of the master 
of novices; he transmits the order of the day 



and is responsible for carrying it out. He 
leads in the common prayers, makes the ar 
rangements with heads of various depart 
ments, and gives the signals for the beginning 
and ending of the short periods into which 
the novices day is divided. He has to be 
wide-awake with all his wits about him from 
morning till night. If any reader of these 
pages should happen to entertain an idea that 
John s sanctity was a dreamy and bemused sen 
timent, he will have to relinquish his notion 
on. learning that John s manuductorship re 
mained a tradition of excellence in the noviti 
ate of Mechlin for long years after. 

The forcefulness and vigor of the boy s char 
acter made permanent impressions upon the 
life around him; some of the modifications 
which he introduced found their way beyond 
the Mechlin Novitiate, and still survive. In 
many Jesuit houses it is customary for the 
community to visit the Blessed Sacrament be 
fore going to bed, a practice which dates back 
to the time of Berchmans, who inaugurated it 
by the force of his example and by gentle and 
persistent agitation. Anyone who knows the 
inexorable conservatism of religious communi 
ties, in the introduction of novelties in devo- 


tion, will rate this as a noteworthy achieve 
ment for a youth of eighteen. 

It is interesting to learn that in John s time 
devotion to Saint Joseph was not nearly so 
prominent in the life of the Church as it has 
since become. With the sure instinct of his 
all-engrossing love of Christ, John recognized 
the supreme position of Mary and Joseph 
among the saints in virtue of their intimate 
association with the Incarnation. His love 
of Christ and our Lady could not exclude the 
third member of the Holy Family from its 
ardor. "What God has joined together," he 
would say, "let no man put asunder." With 
the practical sense of an organizer and pro 
moter, John carried out his ideas by selecting 
three of the novices who, he thought, would 
most readily fall in with his plans and be able 
to gather a following to put them into effect. 
"Once when we were walking together," one 
of these confederates writes, "he began to talk 
to me about the prerogatives of the foster- 
father af Jesus. At his request I agreed to 
spread among the rest as much as possible the 
devotion to so great a saint. We bound our 
selves in particular to speak of his dignity 
whenever we had a chance, and never, if pos- 


sible, to say the Litany of our Lady without 
adding at its close the collect of Saint Joseph." 
It is a curious instance of the anticipations of 
genius that at present that prayer is said after 
the litanies in Jesuit communities all over the 




THE young have a terror of death which 
diminishes as old age advances. To 
depart from the shores of time too soon 
to have left some imprint of one s presence on 
the sands has always seemed the pathetic fea 
ture of early deaths. And yet it is the simple 
truth that only those who die young stand any 
chance of having their real life and personal 
ity rescued from the ever-encroaching waters 
of oblivion. Once we survive our contempo 
raries, though we be Shakespeare or Saint 
Francis Xavier, the world will never have a 
chance to know us as the friends of our youth 
and prime knew us. The child whose quaint 
sayings and pretty ways remain a family tra 
dition after, its death until its brothers and sis 
ters have all become grandfathers and grand 
mothers, has lived longer in a certain true 
sense than the men we call great, for of them 


we are likely to know nothing except some 
public achievements and some mature habits 
and characteristics, which are oftener a dis 
guise than a revelation. There are seldom 
surviving witnesses of the young and ardent 
years in which habits and characteristics are 
forged, to give posterity intimate glimpses of 
the personal forces which have issued in great 
ness and fame. 

It is doubtful, for this reason, whether any 
of the great names of the past stand for so 
much living and breathing personality to dis 
cerning readers as the names of Saint Aloysius, 
Saint Stanislaus, and Saint John Berchmans. 
We can watch them in the making. Their pe 
culiar form of excellence challenged and 
afforded unusual opportunities to the most 
scrutinizing observation, which their early 
death released from the obligations of secrecy 
and the reticences of prudence and propriety. 
In particular is this true of Berchmans. He 
was recognized everywhere as a living coun 
terpart of Stanislaus and Aloysius. One of his 
fellow-novices persistently refused to read the 
Life of Saint Aloysius, because, he said, he 
had before his eyes day after day the actual 
image of Saint Aloysius in John Berchmans. 



Of course, this general recognition could not 
help sharpening observation and setting mem 
ory to the task of making more retentive rec 
ords. The result is that we have a wealth of 
detail about John s few years in the Society 
of Jesus. The reader is referred for a larger 
measure of these details than this short study 
can afford to the longer Life by Francis 
Goldie, S.J. It is a remarkable fact that with 
all this abundant material for a portrait, the 
figure of Berchmans seems to be less sharply 
etched upon the popular mind than the figures 
of Stanislaus and Aloysius. How much this 
is due to the elements of romance and contrast 
in the lives of the latter two saints, and how 
much to the want of skill on the part of John s 
biographers, it is hard to say. 

It is certain that the biographer, who does 
not represent John Berchmans as a youth of 
singular magnetism and charm, has not made 
the most of his materials. If there is one fact 
more outstanding than all the others in the tes 
timony of his contemporaries, it is the fact 
that he was liked immensely by those who lived 
with him. His popularity was no mere suc 
cess of edification. He was not a sculptured 
saint upon a pedestal, a remote object of awe 



and pious boasting to appreciative communi 
ties. His preoccupation with the love of 
Christ only served to establish closer contact 
and more human relationship with his associ 
ates. Any picture of him which fails to make 
lovableness a prominent and characteristic 
feature cannot be said to conform to the actual 

It is to be feared that the kindly human ele 
ment in John has been somewhat obscured in 
the eyes of modern readers by his aloof atti 
tude towards his family. Thus, we read that 
on one occasion he did not wish to pay a visit 
to his home when he might have done so. He 
had been sent with some other novices on a 
pilgrimage to Montaigu. The road to the 
shrine would take him close to Diest, and his 
superior gave him permission to visit his re 
lations in his native city. John advanced rea 
sons for not accepting the invitation. The 
superior said, "Very well; do as you please 
about it." But John s companions were less 
amenable to reason when they discovered that 
he proposed not to stop in Diest. One of the 
three novice-friends mentioned in the last 
chapter was of the party, and has left the fol 
lowing account of the episode. 



"We omitted nothing to persuade him, first 
of all, that it was evidently the intention of the 
Superior that he should go to see his father, 
although he had not quite given a positive 
order to that effect. Again, that such a visit 
might be for the greater glory of God. He, 
on his side, gave very good reasons against it; 
but after a few moments discussion, which 
had been sustained with the best intentions on 
both sides, seeing that we held firm, Listen, 
said he, examine the thing seriously, and tell 
me what seems best to you in the Lord; I en 
gage to abide by your decision. We made a 
short prayer to our Lady, and then decided 
that he ought to visit his father. He gave in 
without another word." 

On its face this incident puts John in a hard 
and repellent light. But we must not wrench 
it from the context, so to speak; it is sure to 
be misleading and unjust to John if considered 
apart from the circumstances. In the first 
place, it is to be noted that John s reasons are 
not stated. His companions thought they were 
very good reasons. Their failure to tell us 
what those reasons were, was probably due to 
a delicate regard for the family of the Berch- 



There is no desire or need to blacken others 
in order to increase the luster of young Berch- 
mans. And it is quite certain that no one can 
hope to win the saint s approval by praising 
him at the expense of his friends, least of all, 
at the expense of his mother. But the mind is 
here confronted with an apparent contradic 
tion, namely, John s gentle consideration for 
everyone, on the one hand; and, on the other, 
his coldness towards those whom he was under 
special obligations to treat kindly and affec 
tionately. John was neither cold nor insen 
sible to obligations. One can only conclude 
that some of the evidence has been suppressed 
out of deference to his relations. 

It is certain that the elder Berchmans wrote 
to his son during the first year of his novitiate, 
urging him to come home and not to spoil his 
brilliant prospects by burying himself in the 
religious life. It is perhaps an unworthy sus 
picion which points to Mrs. Berchmans as 
the innocent cause of John s trouble in being 
allowed to follow his vocation freely. She had 
been an invalid for many years. Her parents 
and other members of her family were living 
next door. The little information we possess 
about their relations with John s family leads 



us to suppose that they were rather worldly 
and unspiritual in their outlook. Although 
they were wealthy, it is recorded that they 
never lifted a finger to help Charles Berch- 
mans in his difficulties. It seems not alto 
gether unlikely that they were able to influence 
the weak invalid and to impose upon her their 
own worldly estimate of John s folly and 
cruelty in placing himself beyond the possibil 
ity of helping his parents to maintain their 
rightful position among the respectable burgh 
ers of Diest. 

If this surmise be anywhere nearly correct, 
it would be perfectly natural for John to be 
reluctant to visit his home. He would only 
disturb and excite his sick mother. How 
could he enter into argument with her? Nor 
could he be expected to feel eager to see his 
maternal relatives next door, if they had alien 
ated his mother from him at just that particu 
larly intimate point where mothers and sons 
are generally most at one. When John s 
mother died he induced his father to make a 
retreat, with the result that Charles Berch- 
mans wished to become a Jesuit also. But 
his age was considered an obstacle to such a 
step, and he became a diocesan priest. One 



of John s brothers later entered the Society of 
Jesus. It is hardly credible that the Society 
would have been attractive in either instance 
if John had behaved unnaturally towards his 

When the news came that his mother was 
dying, John wrote to her the following letter: 


"The peace of Christ be with you and with 
all. I rejoice and am delighted at seeing the 
great blessing which the unending goodness of 
God praise be to Him! has up to this time 
bestowed on all our household, in, first, call 
ing me, unworthy as I am, to the fellowship of 
His only Son Jesus here upon earth, and now 
also by inviting you, my dearest mother, to His 
bridals in heaven. Now, for seven or eight 
years, you have proved the miseries of human 
nature, and have tasted, with Christ Jesus, 
of the chalice of His bitter passion. See Him 
now standing there at your bedside with out 
stretched hands ready to embrace you. Come, 
My bride, My friend. Up to this you have 
been nailed with Me to the cross. Henceforth 
you shall rejoice for all eternity. See the holy 
Mother of God, Mary! See Saint Elizabeth! 


See your holy angel, and cry out with me, O 
Lord Jesus! Behold here Your poor hand 
maiden, standing with Your all-holy Mother, 
Mary, ready for whatever You wish ! O Jesus, 
Son of David, have mercy on me! O Mary, 
behold my children, whom I with so many 
tears have nurtured in the fear of God; I offer 
them up to you to be your sons, your chil 
dren. Be thou, O Mary, their Mother. I, 
too, pray thee with all my heart to adopt me 
as thy son, and my brothers and my sister. 

"Well, then, ever dear mother, fight bravely. 
Think of the crown that is being made ready 
for you. I hope we shall not lose you, but 
that in heaven you will cherish us with greater 
love and affection. I pray you with all my 
heart not to refuse me a mother s blessing. 
Here we are all praying for you, that God 
may give you what is best for you. I hope you, 
in return, will not forget me. Fight bravely, 
dearest mother. 

"Your loving and obedient son, 


If we suppose that this is the letter of a son 
to a mother, somewhat alienated from him 
through the unwarranted and foolish meddling 



of her relations, it will surely recommend it 
self to everyone as a pathetic and wise little 
letter. He yearns for her sympathy and ap 
proval. Back in his mind there is a smoulder 
ing sense of the injustice his relations have 
done him; but with a delicate refinement of 
reticence he never so much as glances at it. 
Still, with all the solemnity that his young 
eloquence can summon, he strives to counter 
act their unspiritual influence over the being 
he loves most on earth by helping her to rise 
above the contracted horizons of time and 
worldly advantage, 

Looking back through the clarifying me 
dium of three centuries, it ought not to be 
hard for any Catholic reader to envy the grace 
and good fortune of Elizabeth vanden Hove 
Berchmans. Not every mother has at hand 
the filial love of a saint to brush aside from 
her last hours the films and cobwebs which ob 
scure her vision and her final progress to the 
arms of Christ and the company of the blessed. 




IF I were asked to name the most charac 
teristic quality of John Berchmans, I 
should not hesitate to say that it was a 
brave courage. He was never called upon to 
make heroic renunciations of a spectacular 
kind, nor to meet adventure on the roads of 
the world, nor to face clenched antagonisms, 
like so many of the martyrs and confessors of 
Christ. Even Aloysius Gonzaga and the very 
young Stanislaus Kostka, his youthful coun 
terparts, had a larger share in these striking 
heroisms than he. Yet his gesture of smiling 
valor is not less obvious than theirs. 

"May I die," he wrote in his private note 
book, "rather than violate deliberately the 
smallest order or rule. I would rather lose 
my health altogether than preserve it by not 
keeping a rule." All through his novitiate he 
had to be restrained by his superior from a 



reckless disregard of his health in the per 
formance of private penances. He usually 
wore a hair-shirt. He had to be supplied with 
cloths to staunch the blood of self-inflicted 
scourgings. In winter he rarely approached 
a fireplace; we are told that the chapped con 
dition of his hands and ears during this season 
excited remark. He shirked eating whenever 
he could elude observation until the Father 
Provincial ordered him to eat his meals. 
There was nothing soft about him. Yet, this 
hardy youth confessed again and again that 
his greatest penance was an unvarying fidelity 
to the routine of community life. The imagi 
nation and the nerves, especially of the young, 
can easily be enlisted by nature in the manu 
facture of excuses for occasional relaxations. 
It takes courage to sweep these excuses off the 
boards. "Rather die," said Berchmans, "than 
for health s sake break a single rule." 

This is the characteristic gesture of the big 
and noble man. A great leader of our time, 
who stirred a nation into new life by his spir 
itual ideals and his contempt of worldly val 
ues, has left us this true saying: "No one can 
finely live who hoards life too jealously: one 
must be generous in service, and withal joy- 


ous, accounting even supreme sacrifices slight." 
This fine disdain for health and life is not 
vain bravado either in the patriot or the saint. 
It is born in the conviction that human life is 
not altogether or primarily a shabby little af 
fair of diet, physical exercise, worldly respec 
tability and mediocre performance. John 
believed that life was given him in order that 
he might show his love for the Giver of it: 
that his soul was his to show his love for the 
Redeemer of it. He was not absorbed in 
canny calculations of the precise compromise 
which would conceivably be satisfactory to 
God, the world, and self. Love, whether of 
God or of the world or of self, has no use for 
nicely graduated measures. 

The religious novitiate is the introduction to 
a kind of life which offers, every hour of the 
day and night, reminders and opportunities to 
anyone who is concerned to realize his best 
self in a generous response to the great love of 
Christ for him. Far from interfering with 
John s close union with God, the elaborate 
and mechanical scaffolding of rules, and con 
stantly changing duties, and orders and direc 
tions of superiors, were only so many 
convenient devices for eliciting the generosity 



of his love for Christ, and bringing him closer 
to Him Whom he loved. 

He was not satisfied with the number of 
existing rules. He made others for private 
observance. Thus, every hour he bound him 
self to call a halt in the progress of the day s 
work and to say, "Ave crux spes unica!" (O 
cross, my only hope!) Then he would say a 
"Hail Mary" and the following prayer: "O 
good Jesus, Thou wast scourged for my sake, 
what have I done for Thee in return for such 
great suffering?" After casting a glance over 
the hour just passed to see if he had done 
everything for the love of Christ, and had kept 
in mind the particular virtue he had chosen 
for special attention, he would say: "Pardon 
me, O Lord, and help me to keep the coming 
hour in a better manner." Then he would 
brace himself for a more perfect handling of 
the coming hour. If he were outside the house 
and under the observation of strangers, the 
hourly survey was done secretly. But, if he 
were in the common room of the novices, 
even though he were engaged with a fellow- 
novice when the clock sounded the hour, he 
would beg to be excused while he knelt for 
the space of a Miserere to make his hourly 



review. He could do this without the least 
affectation or human respect. 

His private practices became known 
through his notebooks. He was an inde 
fatigable diarist of the spiritual life. The 
concerns of the soul were too important to be 
trusted to the possible treacheries of the mem 
ory. Among his notes, which are still pre 
served, there is an admirable summary of 
Rodriguez s famous treatise on "Spiritual Per 
fection." This great work had been in circu 
lation for some years, and is now a common 
text-book of which every novice has a copy. 
But in John s day the multiplication of books 
was not so inexpensive as to-day. There was 
one copy in Mechlin, and it was read during 
dinner and supper. Since John could not have 
a copy for himself, he seized the first free mo 
ments after each meal to summarize what he 
had heard, and in this way succeeded in ob 
taining a good working edition of the classic 

We are. amazed at the perfection of manner 
of holy persons. Like the perfection of great 
artists, it seems to be the unstudied and effort 
less expression of natural genius. If they kept 
notes, which we were permitted to read, we 


should invariably discover that the excellence, 
which looks so natural and easy, has been 
forged painfully through many patient months 
and years. Sanctity, the highest and noblest 
and most beautiful of all the arts of life, has, 
like the other arts, its own secret mechanics. 
We catch glimpses of this in John s notes. He 
had his eye on every moment of the day, and 
each moment was provided for in accordance 
with his idea of a perfect novice. When he 
went to bed at night he assigned places around 
his bed to his guardian angel and patron saints. 
At its head he placed his crucifix. While he 
undressed he thought of Christ being prepared 
for the cross. His bed reminded him of his 
last resting-place. When he lay down he 
crossed his arms on his breast a posture he 
could maintain till morning and occupied 
his mind with thoughts of his morning medita 
tion until he fell asleep. 

The first thing he did on waking was to kiss 
his crucifix and to recur to the subject of his 
morning prayer, and, if it were a Communion 
day for daily Communion was not then the 
common practice it is now to prepare his 
heart for the coming of his Divine Lover. 
These days were high festivals to John, so that 


his companions came to notice his unusual ani 
mation on the eve of a Communion day. Dur 
ing the hour s morning meditation, made in 
the common room, he could lose himself com 
pletely in the thought of God and in the feel 
ings inspired by the subject of his prayer. The 
other novices used to vie with one another to 
be next to him at that time in the hope that 
their hearts might catch fire from the visible 
ardors of John. His fervor came, of course, 
from his vivid conception of Christ s goodness 
and beauty. But it can hardly be denied that 
it was the effect, as much as it was the cause, 
of his close communion with God painstak 
ingly maintained through the routine of the 
day. It is worth while noting that he attached 
more value to prayers said in common with 
his brethren than to private prayers. 

As we have seen, even before his entrance 
into the novitiate he had schooled himself to 
detachment in the matter of food. After say 
ing grace and seating himself, before unfold 
ing his napkin he would recollect himself and 
purify his intention for the space of an "Our 
Father;" then he would divide his food, giving 
the better share to Christ Whom he pictured 


sitting at his side. When his superiors inter 
fered with this practice, he kept on eating 
what was before him until the course was re 

He had two rules for the community recre 
ations: "(i) Pure intention, (2) resolve to 
speak on pious subjects in the presence of 
God." How faithfully these rules were car 
ried out may be gathered from the testimony 
of his novice-master : "He had one joy, to think 
of God, to speak of God; besides God, he had 
no joy whatever. Would you please him, did 
you wish him to like you? You must talk 
about God. Did you wish to displease him? 
Throw in jokes on worldly matters. God 
alone was in his heart, on his lips and pen. He 
knew nothing else." 

It is the peculiar quality, now as heretofore, 
of his intense piety that it never seemed to dis 
turb the nice balance which the diversified in 
terests of practical life demand. Belgium be 
ing a bilingual nation, French had been made 
the ordinary medium of intercourse in the 
Mechlin Novitiate, so that the Flemish nov 
ices could not help learning it. Although 
young Berchmans knew no French when he 


entered the house, in a few months he could 
not only write it with correctness but could 
preach in it with such fluency as to excite ad 
miring comment. His intellectual life was 
kept on the alert, rather than held down, by 
his piety. He had bound himself to pray 
every morning at Mass for grace to become a 
fit instrument for the work of the Society of 
Jesus. Whatever learning or accomplish 
ments the Society set him to acquire he strove 
to master with all his power. 

This faint outline of John Berchmans s gen 
eral bearing and manner in the novitiate 
would be incomplete without two character 
istic touches which the recorded incidents of 
that period afford. As is the custom in Jesuit 
novitiates, the novices on Sundays and holi 
days taught catechism at various rural centers 
where the people lacked abundant means of 
religious instruction. John entered enthusias 
tically into this activity. His congregation 
said they preferred to listen to him than to 
preachers.of long experience. "When he had 
finished his instruction," writes the lay-brother 
who was wont to accompany him, "he heard 
only a part of the Mass which was being said, 


telling me once that he would willingly have 
heard it all, but he was afraid of scandalizing 
the simple country-people. Because those 
novices who had preceded him in the giving 
of the instructions at this center used to leave 
for home before the Mass was ended. If he 
were to depart from their custom, the people 
might get it into their heads that his prede 
cessors had not heard Mass elsewhere and take 
scandal as a result of their rash judgment." 

Thus we see John s practical prudence was 
wide-awake. Not less conspicuous was an 
other characteristic of all sane and solid sanc 
tity, namely, an entire forgetfulness of self in 
contributing to the common weal. As manu- 
ductor he had the unpleasant duty of notify 
ing the recipients of the small penances im 
posed upon them by the novice-master for 
some breach of the meticulous laws of the 
strict and exacting polity of the novitiate. 
John used to beg, frequently with success, that 
he might perform the penances in their stead. 
Of course the offenders never discovered the 
vicarious part he played in their punishments. 
It was generally understood that he was al 
ways at the service of anyone. Although every 
moment of his day was mapped out with a 


thrift, that was perhaps partly Flemish, he 
believed that no moment could be better im 
proved than by employing it in the interests 
of whoever had immediate need of his help. 



IT must be evident to the most casual reader 
that John s strong love of Christ found a 
free and congenial field for its secure ex 
ercise in the Society of Jesus. If we are dis 
posed to regard with despair, or alien 
bewilderment, as something beyond the range 
of human endurance, the high tension, with 
out break or relaxation, of his spiritual life, 
let us rearrange our perspective until the seem 
ing exaggerations of John reduce themselves 
to a logical proportion. 

"You must not spare the little ass," John 
used to say of his body and its inclinations; "it 
is good to shake him up from time to time." 
With most of us a regime of constant goading 
would issue in frayed nerves, broken health, 
and mental disturbances. Whereas John s 
temper, health, and cheerful equilibrium im- 


proved with every increase of pace to which 
he put his beast of burden. This is by no 
means a mystery. If Christ were to disclose 
Himself in all the ineffable sweetness and 
power of His love and beauty to the most slug 
gish of us, spending the day with us, coming 
in and going out with us, and standing by in 
all our tasks, it is inconceivable that we should 
find dullness in the most driving of routines or 
irritation in importunate calls upon our 
energy. Every draught drawn by circum 
stance upon our comfort and complacence 
would be honored with alacrity simply because 
it was a tribute of our love for Him and 
pleased Him. That was His way when He 
lived among men. He wants us to go the same 
way, not because He wants to see us hurt and 
bruised, but because it is the only way by 
which we can realize our best self and enjoy 
that happiness which He wants to see us en 

If Christ were to walk with us through the 
day in this fashion, we should be having the 
time of our life. And people, who would not 
know, would be pitying us and wondering 
how we could stand it. Just as we sometimes 


catch ourselves thinking about John. Let us 
not waste any pity upon John Berchmans. 
He was having a perfectly satisfying time. 
He slept well, was able to eat well, wanted to 
go to the remote missions of China some day, 
and entered with zest into all the preparatory 
processes to which the Society of Jesus sub 
jected him for his own perfection and for fu 
ture labors and adventures in the great busi 
ness of kindling the fire of Christ s love in 
the hearts of the world. 

One of the best proofs of our supernatural 
destiny is the fact that human nature cannot 
realize its highest possibilities except through 
the love of Christ and the supernatural means 
He has placed at our disposal. The saints, and 
no one besides the saints, have succeeded in 
realizing the best and highest in human na 
ture. While exclusively intent upon the love 
of God, running its errands, so to speak, and 
plying its tasks, John Berchmans was uncon 
sciously shaping into a perfect type of man. 
What eye can fail to draw delight from the 
picture of him which John s novice-master 
has drawn for us? "All of us who have had 
the happiness to live with him and to know 



him, have been of but one opinion about his 
holiness. He led among us a truly angelic 
life, by the great innocence of his heart, the 
modesty of his behavior, his wondrous cour 
tesy and gentlemanly manners, his peaceful 
way of acting, his perseverance in all good he 
undertook, his perfect and prompt obedience, 
his rare prudence on every subject, the fervor 
he displayed in all he did, without ever for 
getting for a single moment the presence of 
God, like the angelic spirits who walk ever 
in His sight." 

Christ and the atmosphere of Divine Love 
in which he moved were actual and intimate 
realities to John, making obedience and ser 
vice a keen delight. He could not wait for 
the completion of the two years of probation 
before pledging himself entirely and forever 
to the religious life in the Society of Jesus. 
After his first year of novitiate he was allowed 
by his superiors to take the vows of the So 
ciety privately. Although these vows of de 
votion, as they are called, imposed an obliga 
tion on his conscience, they did not admit him 
into formal and complete membership into 
the Society, and he longed for the day when 


the Society of Jesus would publicly accept 
his vows and take him to her heart. The fol 
lowing letter reveals his feelings as the happy 
day grew near; it was written to his father, 
who was now a priest and a canon of St. 
Sulpice in his native town of Diest: 


"Pax Christi, 

"Worldly parents, who are filled with false 
ambition, are greatly pleased when their chil 
dren get married to the princes and great ones 
of this world, and especially when the mar 
riages bring them a larger fortune than their 
own. Yet this joy is often empty, and even 
foolish. Would that such parents were not 
forced now and again to bewail and abhor 
for all eternity the lot of their children, which 
once had so delighted them. To you, dearest 
father, this letter of mine offers a far other 
joy, pure and without dregs. Rejoice, rejoice, 
here is a cup of gladness, not empty but real. 
What is it? Your son, on the 2^th of Septem 
ber, so he hopes, will die. Will die? Yes; 
but he will die to the world by the death of 
the just. 


"O sweet death! O death, no death, but 
sweetest life! May my soul die the death of 
the just! Where, and by what torture? On 
the cross of Jesus, with Jesus, pierced with 
the three nails of poverty, chastity, and per 
petual obedience, he will die with Jesus. Oh, 
how sweet it is to die in the Society of Jesus, 
in the arms of Jesus! 

"Rejoice, my good father; in this death your 
son will live and will live happily. What 
can be happier, what more delightful, than 
this life, passed with such a Spouse. Oh, that 
my soul were clad with a garment of virtues 
fit for the presence of its Beloved! Oh, that 
it could spread the rich banquet of its vows 
for the most Holy Trinity, the Blessed Vir 
gin, and all the angels with appropriate love 
and dignity. 

"I will try hard on my part to do this during 
the days on which I am just going to enter. 
But, as it is not within my unaided power, 
again and again I beg of you to ask the help 
and protection of the Blessed Virgin by 
three Masses of the Holy Ghost at Montaigu. 
I hope, too, that grandfather and grand 
mother, my uncles and aunts, and other 
friends, will not let me miss their prayers. 



For the rest, with all my heart I commend 
myself to your Reverence s Holy Sacrifices. 

"Your Reverence s Most Humble, Obedient 
Son in Christ, 


"Mechlin. The Novitiate of the Society of 

"I6l8, September 2." 

The ecstacy of this letter will be unintelli 
gible to cold hearts. But at least they can and 
will wish sadly that their sense of Christ s 
love for them were fiery enough to break into 
such burning speech. John s superiors 
thought his eagerness and fervor needed re 
straints rather than extraordinary provoca 
tion; and so they did not allow him to make 
the retreat, which is prescribed as an immedi 
ate preparation for the taking of the vows. 
John s disappointment may be gathered from 
his pious plans and anticipations for this re 
treat, to which he refers in the last paragraph 
of his letter. 

On the morning of the 25th, Father Bauters, 
the novice-master, said the ordinary low Mass 
in the novitiate chapel. The altar was deco 
rated, as is usual, when a novice is to take 


his vows. At the communion John ap 
proached and knelt down on the altar-step; 
and, after the blessing, when the priest turned 
towards him with the Sacred Host, John pro 
nounced the vows of perpetual poverty, chas 
tity, and obedience, and consecrated himself 
wholly and entirely to the life and work of 
the Society of Jesus, declaring that he did this 
in the presence of the whole heavenly Court, 
and begging divine assistance for fidelity to 
his pledge. He then received the Blessed 

It is all very simple; but to all who have 
gone through it, it is an experience of soul- 
shaking beauty. Missionaries in lonely wil 
dernesses, proscribed priests hunted like wild 
animals on land and the high seas by govern 
ments hostile to the Faith, lay-brothers in life 
long tasks of humble manual toil, ministers 
of heroic service on battlefield and in plague- 
stricken cities, in hospitals and in prisons, and 
the hundreds and thousands who have never 
been called upon to nerve themselves for some 
last and glorious exploit, but have had to keep 
their spirits fresh and, amid humdrum em 
ployments, ward off with prayer and reflection 
the deadening encroachments of routine, all 



these have looked back years afterwards to 
that morning Mass in a community-chapel 
when they said their vows and felt a brother 
hood of rapture with Loyola, and Xavier, and 
Gonzaga, and Kostka, and Berchmans, and 
Alphonsus Rodriguez, and Campion, and 
Jogues, and Marquette, and many another; 
and they have found refreshment and new 
impulse in the memory. If this has been the 
common experience of Jesuits less favored of 
heaven than John, we can form a fairly accu 
rate concept of the tumult of happiness in the 
heart of John during his thanksgiving after 
the Holy Communion with which he sealed his 




THE two years of the Jesuit novitiate 
are followed by two years of what is 
called juniorate. The juniorate is 
spent mainly in study under conditions of 
strictness and supervision resembling those of 
the novitiate. It is intended to serve as a 
graduating interval between a course of inten 
sive spirituality and long years of study, and 
to help the newly made religious to learn how 
to advance in the spiritual life by his own 
vigilance and devices under any conditions. 
The religious life is not designed at any of 
its stages to minister to the comfort and com 
placence of human nature. If the periods of 
a Jesuit s life, which follow upon the noviti 
ate, may be called easier and less exacting, it 
is only in the sense that the elaborate scaffold 
ing of constructive spirituality in which the 
novice works has been removed. The spiritual 



structure is expected to stand and to grow from 
strength to strength after the supports of the 
novitiate have been withdrawn, and it is again 
exposed to the insidious action of human dis 
tractions and employments. 

At the present day the Jesuit juniorate is 
devoted mainly to the study of the ancient clas 
sics and the vernacular literature, after which 
the young Jesuit proceeds to a three years 
course of philosophy and science. In John s 
time the two years of literary study were omit 
ted. A partial explanation for this omission 
can be found in the curriculum of the 
colleges of that period. Little or no attention 
was paid in the schools to the vernacular liter 
atures of that time: indeed, it is only during 
the last hundred years that living languages 
and literatures have been introduced as seri 
ous and systematic studies in the classroom. 
The consequence was that in the older day a 
diligent boy on leaving college had acquired 
a fairly complete mastery of Latin and Greek, 
at least sufficient to enable him to pursue 
further perfection in these tongues on his own 
initiative. As for modern languages and liter 
atures, he was supposed with his equipment of 


classical training to pick them up as occasion 
and opportunity offered. 

By this arrangement John was sent directly 
from the novitiate to the triennium in philoso 
phy. The first two years of his philosophical 
studies thus became his juniorate. He was 
sent to the Belgian house of studies in Ant 
werp during the week following his vow-day. 
During the interval he slipped the following 
communication to Father Sucquet, the Rector 
of the Novitiate and for a time his novice- 

"It is a pleasure to me, Father, to be allowed 
to have recourse to your Reverence as to my 
heavenly Father, for you hold His place. So, 
confidently, and in spite of my unworthiness, 
I come to you to beg one only favor with my 
whole mind and heart, as a son would do from 
his father that as my father, you, who for 
nearly three whole years have had me under 
your charge, would be so good as to let me 
know my -faults. For these are what close 
heaven against me, and put a hindrance to 
grace. So, Father, as you love my soul, 
stamped as it is with the image of God, pray 
tell me them; as a father let me know them. 



"I have good reason to ask this one favor as 
a last gift from your Reverence; for, if I go 
away without this knowledge, who, I pray, 
can give it to me? Who is there that knows my 
faults better than you? Again, I have never 
acknowledged all the pains you have taken 
about me, all the favors you have done me. 
But what can I do in return? How can I 
repay you? I confess, I confess, Father, how 
exceedingly I am indebted to your Reverence. 
I am yours, I am yours entirely; I never can 
be other than entirely devoted to you. Pray 
make use of me as often as you wish and for 
whatever you wish. You know my feelings 
and attachment towards you, and I know yours 
toward me. And so, as without fail from the 
first day of my noviceship, I have to the best 
of my power ever been mindful of your Rev 
erence in my poor prayers; so, as long as I 
live, whithersoever I go, I will ever cherish 
your memory affectionately and inviolably. 
"Your Reverence s Servant in Christ, 

On arriving at Antwerp John seized the 
earliest opportunity of seeing Father De 
Clercq, the Rector, and of laying bare his 


inner life to one who was to be in virtue of 
his official position his superior and spiritual 
guide. Father De Clercq, of course, was im 
pressed by this interview with his new sub 
ject; and, curious to discover how much of 
this young perfection was merely borrowed 
and notional, and how much real and genuine, 
he undertook to snub the young philosopher 
and, after failing to discover any real faults in 
him, to rebuke him for imaginary ones. John 
reveled so much in the luxury of such a severe 
superior that the Rector quit in discourage 
ment. Father De Clercq was the first to make 
a formal declaration of the heroic sanctity of 
John when his cause was opened before the 
ecclesiastical judges in Antwerp five years 

John had been in Antwerp for less than a 
month when he received orders to go to Rome 
for his course of philosophy. This unusual 
favor gave him the greatest pleasure, which 
he frankly manifested when receiving the con 
gratulations -of his brother-students. The 
thought of seeing the Vicar of Christ and the 
General of the Society, and of mingling with 
men distinguished for their learning and holi 
ness, on ground consecrated and made historic 


by the prayers and labors of great saints, filled 
him with glad anticipations. Getting close to 
the heart of the visible Church seemed to sat 
isfy in some measure his yearning for proxim 
ity to the Heart of Christ. When he expressed 
himself as puzzled why the choice of superiors 
should fall upon him, while so many of his 
associates were holier and more gifted than 
himself, we have to give him credit for sin 
cerity. John s honest directness is too appar 
ent to allow us to believe that he knew the 
language of vain compliment and mincing self- 

And now a strange thing happened, which 
confirms our vague suspicions about the rather 
unamiable qualities of his relations. John was 
given a week to prepare for his trip and to 
say his farewells to his family. He wrote to 
his father and went on to Mechlin to meet 
him. What was his surprise on reaching the 
latter town to discover that his father was dead 
and buried. Ten days had gone by since his 
death, and none of his relations had taken the 
trouble to send him the news. This shocking 
indifference to John s natural feelings stag 
gered him all the more, coming as it did in the 
exhilarating moment of his prospective jour- 


ney to Rome. We could hardly blame him if 
he sadly closed the book of his relations, 
fastened the clasp firmly upon it, and laid it 
away forever on the topmost shelf of forgotten 
things. It is interesting, therefore, to read the 
letter which he wrote to his relations in the 
disconcerting circumstances: 

"I. H. S. 

"A friendly greeting be this letter to you all 
grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, 
and to all my friends. The reason of my writ 
ing is this. I received an order on Thursday 
last to wit, the i8th of October from my 
Superiors, that I should get ready immediately 
to start for Rome on the coming Monday. 
And when I came to Mechlin to recommend 
myself to my father s prayers, and those of all 
of you, I learned that my father died long ago. 
I was very much astonished and ill-pleased 
that you had not let me know this. However, 
I consoled myself with the thought that I had 
every day .of my life fulfilled the office of a 
good son towards his father; with this differ 
ence, that I had prayed for him every day as 
if he were alive, while in reality he was dead. 

"I pray all of you, my dear friends, with all 


my heart, to take care of my two brothers, 
Bartholomew and Charles, that they may be 
brought up in the fear of God, and in good 
manners, remembering that in so doing you 
will be very pleasing to Almighty God. I 
hope that Mary, my sister, and Adrian, my 
brother, will be known for their good behavior, 
and that Adrian, for the years that I shall be 
in Rome, will give his brothers a good exam 
ple, and sometimes even good advice. I should 
wish our guardians to consult the precentors 
of Diest and Mechlin to see where these two 
children might best be placed. 

"I should have come to see and bid good-bye 
to you ; but, as the time is so short, I am obliged 
to recommend myself to you by this letter, beg 
ging earnestly of you to recommend me and 
my journey to our Lady of Montaigu, that I 
may complete it without accident and with 
good health. You will learn shortly how it 
all fared. Will you let all my friends read 
the first part of the letter I will send? 

"My dear aunts, Mary and Catherine 
Berchmans, and Margaret Berchmans, Cath 
erine van Hove, and Anne van Olmen, I beg 
you by your friendship towards your nephew, 
John Berchmans, that each of you would get 


two Masses said at Montaigu, to help me on 
my way, that I may accomplish this journey 
to Rome with the good of my soul. And have 
a little care of my sister and brothers, and 
principally of our Charles, whom I should 
never like to see taken from his studies, for 
I expect great things from him. I hope that 
our dear Lord will soon provide for them, and 
I will do my best for this; and in all the holy 
places in Rome I trust I shall think of you. 
"Yours devotedly, 


A brave and sensible letter indeed to have 
been written by one, who was still a boy, in 
an hour of bitter chagrin. It is a satisfaction 
to know that his ambition for Charles was 
realized. Charles, the fourth child in the 
family, died a Jesuit after a long and honor 
able and useful career in the Society. Adrian, 
the second child, became an Augustinian monk 
a few months after John s death, taking for 
his name in religion the name of his saintly 
brother. Bartholomew, the youngest of the 
five children, became a soldier; and Mary, 
who came between Adrian and Charles, was 
married to a lawyer in Mechlin. 


John had one more letter to write before 
setting out. He sent an earnest entreaty to the 
good Canon Froymont to do what he could 
for the proper education of his three brothers, 
ending with the following postscript: "Say 
everything kind from me to my Adrian, Bar 
tholomew, and Charles, whom perhaps I am 
never to see more. And the keepsake I leave 
them is this : Increase in holiness and the fear 
of the Lord and in learning. Good-bye to 

One cannot help noting in these two letters 
the importance attached by a saint to learning 
and good manners. 



JOHN S request for prayers for a safe 
journey was not an idle formula. The 
trip was to be made on foot, and, on ac 
count of the Thirty Years War raging in the 
German countries, by a long detour through 
France. The road lay through Ghent, Paris 
and Lyons, and thence over mountain-passes 
fraught with the perils of winter. John s com 
panion was another young Flemish scholastic, 
Bartholomew Penneman by name, like John, 
sent by his superiors to pursue his studies in 

They left Antwerp on the 24th of October 
and arrived in Rome on the last day of the 
year after having traveled nearly a thousand 
miles, seldom stopping over at any of the 
Jesuit houses on the way for more than a day. 
Human curiosity cannot help feeling balked 
that John, industrious note-taker that he was, 
[ 129] 


has left no diary of the incidents of the road 
side and the inns during this long pedestrian 
tour. As the two travelers reached Rome in 
good health, it is likely they experienced the 
pleasures of the open road. They were both 
young; the bracing air of autumn made walk 
ing a delight; landscapes of golden stubble- 
fields and coloring forests bordered the road 
up to the gates of strange cities ; then there was 
the winter silence and mystery of mountain 
heights, and, at the end of the road, Italy, the 
warm and beautiful garden of dreams; and, 
last of all, the imperial city of Christendom, 
the fateful center of conflict between Light 
and Darkness, whose domes and palaces and 
relics of past follies and past sanctities still cast 
their shadows across seas and oceans and fill 
the imagination of those who live and die in 
the remotest corners of the earth. 

It would be a mistake to suppose that John 
was oblivious of the charms of such an adven 
ture. He possessed health and high spirits, 
and the study of the classics had made him 
sensitive to the elusive disclosures of the beauty 
and delight of the world. But it is not the way 
of a saint to delay upon sensations of pleasure: 
to rest in them is to spoil them. If we have 


learned anything up to this about John, we 
must know that every thrill of the winding 
road and the unfamiliar cities placed him 
under new obligations to the beauty and good 
ness of God, obligations which he strove to 
discharge by new fidelities and denials. The 
beauty of the autumn woods has often caused 
the hearts of poets to ache with exquisite pain : 
only the saints know it is not the woods, but 
the splendor of God gleaming through them. 
The only written records of that trip are con 
tained in some letters sent to Rome about that 
time from various Jesuit houses which were 
visited on the way, in which there is casual 
mention of John s extraordinary qualities, and 
congratulations to the community which was 
to receive him as a member. 

At Milan their brother-Jesuits in that city 
took the two young Belgians to the ducal pal 
ace and other show-places of renown. But the 
grandeur of historic Italy, unusual as it was 
to one fresh from the sober homeliness of 
Flemish cities, failed to startle John. He 
must have been the despair of ciceroni. He 
confessed to a friend in Rome that he could 
not remember looking at the monuments and 
treasures of the city s greatness. Perhaps he 


was too tired ; perhaps he was bored by the un- 
spiritual triumphs of human vanity and pride. 
One experience stood out from all others : the 
two travelers arrived in Loretto on Christmas 
Eve and were able to attend midnight Mass 
in the basilica and to receive Holy Commun 
ion in the Holy House. During the two days 
spent at the Jesuit house in Loretto, John, to 
his great delight, came upon traces of the pres 
ence of his beloved Aloysius Gonzaga. 

Five days later they saw the dome of St. 
Peter s in the distance, and that evening, the 
last of the year 1618, they entered the House 
of the Gesu, the Roman home of the General 
of the Jesuits. Father Mutius Vitelleschi, who 
was the sixth General of the Society of Jesus, 
received them graciously and invited them to 
remain over New Year s day to celebrate the 
feast of the Circumcision, the patron-feast of 
the church. 

This brief sojourn with the choicest spirits 
of the Society, in the very house in which 
Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Borgia had 
dwelt and prayed and directed the world-wide 
ventures of the Society, nerved John to re 
doubled efforts in pursuit of that perfection 
to which the grace of God and the rules and 


examples of the Society of Jesus were so urg 
ently inviting him. It was in this frame of 
mind that he began his life in the Roman Col 




THE Roman College, now called the 
Gregorian University, after its founder, 
Gregory XIII, had been started by 
Saint Ignatius in 1551 as "A Free School of 
Grammar, Humanities, and Christian Doc 
trine" with four students and fourteen pro 
fessors. Two years later courses were opened 
in philosophy and theology. Forty years 
later, in 1591, when Saint Aloysius was in 
residence, the students numbered 2100. The 
thoroughness of its courses and the brilliant 
reputation of its teachers, men like Cardinal 
Bellarmine, Cardinal Toledo, Suarez, Maldo- 
nado, and Vasquez, attracted students from all 
over the world. Though the Gregorian, as it 
is called, at present occupies different quar 
ters from those of the old Roman College, it 
retains its traditions sufficiently to help us 



reconstruct the conditions in which John lived 
during his three years in Rome. 

The Roman College was a large building, 
housing a Jesuit community which consisted 
of officials, teaching staff, and scholastics, num 
bering in John s time about two hundred, fol 
lowing courses in science, philosophy and 
theology. Non-Jesuit students to the number 
of several thousands came every day to the 
Roman College to attend the lectures. Owing, 
no doubt, to the difficulty of supplying text 
books and books of reference abundantly in 
an age when book-making was an expensive 
process, there was a great deal of dictation dur 
ing the lectures; and after each lecture the 
students remained in the lecture room for 
half an hour to review the ground gone over 
by the lecturer. For this purpose they were 
divided into groups, and in each group one 
was appointed Repetitor to go over the lec 
ture for the rest. This was a position which 
John filled for a time. There was one for 
mal disputation every week before all the stu 
dents in a course, in which Jesuit and non- 
Jesuit students took part : besides this there was 
another reserved only for the Jesuit scholas 


The scholastics who, like John, had just 
come from the novitiate, lived for the first two 
years of their course in philosophy, in a sepa 
rate and distinct part of the college and under 
stricter rules than the rest of the community. 
They were still "juniors," with a spiritual di 
rector of their own, with extra exercises and 
instructions and manual employments, and 
were not allowed to mingle freely with the 
older scholastics and the fathers. 

The following letter, written to Canon 
Froymont after John entered the College, 
gives his impressions: 


"Pax Chrlsti 

"I should fear to incur the reproach of in 
gratitude if I let slip so favorable an oppor 
tunity without paying my r espects to your 
Excellency, to whom I owe so much. For it is 
to you, reverend sir, I confess I am indebted 
for any success I have had in my studies, for 
whatever has flowed into my mind of the milk 
of piety and the fear of the Lord. Yes, and 
even my being in the Society of Jesus; for 
though so unworthy and wicked I own it, and 
I willingly own it I am, for all that, a com- 


panion of Jesus, and that is enough for me; 
all this I owe to your most religious training. 
"I enjoy very good health at Rome, whither, 
last year, by my Superior s orders, I came from 
Mechlin. I have finished my first year s 
course of philosophy in the Roman College of 
our Society, in which there are more than two 
hundred Fathers and scholastics, for the most 
part continually engaged in study. How won 
derful it is! Nearly all are of different na 
tionalities. There are Spaniards, Poles, Ger 
mans, Portuguese, Dalmatians, Sicilians, Nea 
politans, Belgians, Frenchmen, and men of 
other countries. And yet they are united with 
such a bond of love and charity, that they 
might be all sons of one mother. And among 
such as these am I. Good God! . . . For the 
rest I only commend myself to the holy sac 
rifices of your Excellence, and I will ever be 
mindful of you. Given at Rome, in the Ro 
man College of the Society of Jesus, Novem 
ber 23. 

"Your Excellency s Servant in Christ, 


"P. S. Affectionate regards to M. d litre, 
Giles, and his people, my brothers and sisters, 
and all at Diest. I should wish your Excel- 



lence to take care that my brothers and sister 
go to confession every week, and receive Holy 
Communion every month. About anything 
else I have no anxieties. That my relations 
had to beg their bread from door to door 
would not be a trial or a shame to me. That 
they should offend God mortally, I could not 

Father Cepari, the biographer of Saint 
Aloysius and the future biographer of John 
himself, was Rector of the college while John 
lived in it. His professor of philosophy was 
Father Francis Piccolomini, a member of a 
patrician family of European prominence, and 
destined to be a successor of Father Vitelleschi 
as General of the Society of Jesus. Father 
Horace Grassi was his teacher of higher 
mathematics, and Father Tarquin Galluzzi 
his lecturer on ethics, both of them men of 

Among his associates were two future Gen 
erals of the Society, Alexander Gottof redi and 
Paul Oliva, also members of famous Italian 
families, and Cornelius a Lapide, the great 
commentator on Holy Scripture. In this col 
lege at this time learning and sanctity seemed 


to be in the very air. Saints and scholars were 
almost natural phenomena hardly separable 
into distinct classes. The spirit which ani 
mated them in their studies finds expression in 
an entry in John s diary where he notes down 
reasons for patience and industry in the pur 
suit of learning: 

"I am come into religion to work and 
not to be idle. Heretics are so ardent 
in acquiring knowledge which they will 
afterwards use against Jesus Christ, and will 
you be content with only ordinary application 
when you have to defend our Saviour? Men 
in the world go in for study with such zeal, 
because they hope for the empty reward of 
honor, and will you be less jealous of God s 
glory than they are of their own? I must 
apply myself to my studies, not allowing the 
smallest moment to be lost, and never failing 
to note down anything that is worth noting in 
the scholastic discussions." 

It is not to be wondered at, in the light of 
this resolution, tnat, although John had missed 
the first two months of his course, which be 
gan in November, he soon caught up with the 
rest of his class without any sacrifice of the 
time and attention which he was wont to de- 



vote to his spiritual life. Before his triennium 
was completed he was to win distinction among 
young men selected and brought together in 
the Roman College for their unusual talents 
and attainments. 

[ 140 ] 



ONE of the most popular fallacies, 
which the contrary evidence of the 
facts seems to be powerless to destroy, 
is that saints and poets are necessarily unprac 
tical and out of touch with common every-day 
life. Coventry Patmore wrote a very excellent 
manual on the way to manage an estate; and 
their biographies serve to show that great poets 
have not been altogether helpless and vague 
in the puzzling cross-currents of life. As for 
the saints, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa are 
by no means exceptional instances of great 
holiness allied with wisdom and careful at 
tention to details in the affairs of the world. 

Pseudo-poets and pseudo-saints, who scorn 
common life as an offense to the nostrils, are 
responsible for the shallow criticism of the 
average man, who thus finds a convenient sup 
port for mediocrity of vision and performance. 


Neither saints nor poets are the chance prod 
ucts of a favoring environment. Anyone who 
says that he might have been a poet or a saint, 
if circumstances had been arranged differently 
for him, is, we fear, merely making a con 
fession of failure or ineptitude. 

Saints, even more than poets, have always 
set a high value on their daily instalments of 
life in whatever guise of form and circum 
stantial color it came to them. No one can 
deny the wrapt intensity of John Berchmans s 
spiritual life from a very early period in his 
childhood; and yet there is discoverable not 
the slightest sign that he ever once disliked 
or shirked a commonplace demand upon his 
attention as a troublesome intrusion into his 
devotions. On the contrary, he seemed to have 
discovered the secret of transmuting the dis 
tractions of the day into spiritual treasure: 
therefore, he fell upon them with vigor. He 
was no fastidious dilettante daintily picking 
his way down the common road. 

Perhaps the most striking thing in his life 
is the enthusiasm with which John now threw 
himself into his studies in the Roman College. 
These studies were not especially ecclesiasti 
cal nor conducive to piety: moreover, they 


were pursued in a large school where public 
tests of proficiency stirred emulation and 
brought into play all the natural motives in 
the struggle to excel. One should expect a 
saint would dip gingerly into such a life, as 
one who knew the vanity of human learning 
and the danger of winning human applause. 
Let us reflect upon the strange fact that John 
found in an almost fierce application to study 
an admirable expression of his love of Christ 
and his passion for spiritual perfection. 

Father Piccolomini was John s favorite pro 
fessor. As a student himself, and afterwards 
as a professor and a General of the Society 
of Jesus, it will be readily conceded that he 
enjoyed unusual opportunities for observing 
remarkable instances of close attention to 
books. He was not a man easily betrayed into 
over-statement. This is his considered opinion 
of John: "Berchmans, besides excellent tal 
ents, which were peculiarly capable of taking 
in a number of different subjects at once, pos 
sessed an ardor and application for work, such 
as no one, in my opinion, ever surpassed, and 
few are able to equal." 

What makes this opinion of Father Picco 
lomini all the more extraordinary is the fact 


that the Society of Jesus sets all sorts of re 
strictions upon the studious inclinations of its 
younger members. Thus, John might not burn 
the midnight oil in chasing down some point 
in philosophy or mathematics; he had to be in 
bed at nine. During his juniorate, in particu 
lar, large portions of the day were taken away 
from study and given over to prayers and spir 
itual instruction and manual tasks. The stu 
dents of the Roman College, moreover, were 
not allowed to make their studies the subjects 
of conversations during the recreations in the 
common room of the College after dinner and 
supper. John might desire to practise his 
Italian on the native students at odd moments; 
but there was a rule which enjoined the speak 
ing of Latin in the casual intercourse often 
necessary during working hours. 

These restrictions are not intended to dis 
courage scholarship, but rather to keep it from 
losing contact with life and reality and be 
coming barren or eccentric. Moreover, they 
serve to create in the young student a high es 
timate of the value of time. When we know 
that our time is limited we are more likely to 
improve it. The wisdom of these restrictions 
was justified in Berchmans. He not only ob- 


served them with scrupulous fidelity, but even 
added others of his own making. Thus he 
obtained permission from his superiors to 
spend in spiritual retreat every month one of 
the free days which serious students find so 
acceptable for catching up in their matter or 
for pursuing private investigation. Yet John 
seemed to have ample time for everything. 
Father Cepari, a literary man of some distinc 
tion, declared that John spoke Italian with 
the ease and elegance of a cultivated Roman; 
and, at the end of his course, John was chosen 
to give a public defense of the whole field of 
philosophy, an honor conferred only upon an 
exceptionally brilliant student and most credi 
tably carried off by John before a large and 
impressive assembly of Roman doctors and 

His note-books help to explain his success. 
We find in them his ideal of a perfect Jesuit 
student under the heading, "A Good Scholas 
tic of the Society of Jesus." Here are certain 
regulations which, in John s mind, should gov 
ern a perfect scholastic in his relations towards 
God, towards his studies, and towards others. 
As John s contemporaries all agreed that he 
embodied this ideal in his life at the Roman 


College we may take the picture as of himself. 
He never stopped to ask about the utility of 
any study he was put to. It was his ambition 
to be sent ultimately to the missions in China, 
where it was very probable he would have lit 
tle or no need for much of the erudition which 
his courses imposed upon him. But it was his 
principle to concentrate all his mental energy 
upon any subject that came up, regardless of 
future contingencies. He never used any 
books except those recommended by profes 
sors and superiors. Even here he denied him 
self legitimate latitude. Thus, he begged to 
be excused from reading the "Confessions of 
Saint Augustine," which Father Cepari had 
lent him, declaring that the distress of going 
through the early chapters was too much for 
him. He attached much importance to taking 
notes which were to be reviewed regularly and 
recopied after a process of reduction and se 
lection. He had a preference for Father Pic- 
colomini among his professors, but he accepted 
them all alike in the spirit in which he ac 
cepted the subjects of his course. 

Every moment of the time designated for 
study and lectures was carefully hoarded. He 
did most of his studying standing at a high 


desk. He was the victim of headaches, which 
sometimes obliged him to put his books aside. 
On such occasions he took his rest in saying 
his beads or reading a spiritual book. 

We gather from the observation of Father 
Piccolomini, already quoted, that John pos 
sessed what might be called an all-around mind 
of the broad Baconian kind, ready to be inter 
ested in knowledge as such, and not impelled 
by nature to particularize in any special field 
of knowledge. This character of his intellect 
may have helped him to be so inclusive and 
indifferent as to his professors and the nature 
of his studies. But, on the other hand, it is a 
cast of mind which is peculiarly eager and 
curious. And one cannot avoid the conviction 
that the stern discipline to which John sub 
jected himself in his studies was more heroic 
than may easily be appreciated. 

The only study which engaged his attention, 
outside of the regular curriculum, was the 
study of languages; and this for apostolic pur 
poses. At the end of his triennium in the 
Roman College, besides Latin, which, of 
course, he spoke fluently, he knew Flemish, 
French, and Italian. For a young man of 
twenty- two this was not bad. He was matur 


ing plans for learning English and German, 
and for extending his knowledge of Greek, 
when death came to interrupt all academic 

Judging from the results we can acquiesce 
in the declaration found among the Saint s 
notes: "I find that by generously giving the 
whole morning on Communion days, and on 
feast days a whole hour, and every month one 
whole day to spiritual exercises, I do not at 
all interfere with my studies." 



IT is not easy in a compendious biography 
to convey a vivid picture of the sanctity, 
declared by the Church to be heroic, 
which John Berchmans practised during his 
three years of study in the Roman College. 
"I have seen no one," says Father Piccolomini, 
his professor and confidant, "who in an ordi 
nary and common life had less that was ordi 
nary and common." It was the characteristic 
quality of John s sanctity that it found 

"Under the common thing the hidden grace, 
And conjured wonder out of emptiness 
Till mean things put on Beauty like a dress." 

But the spleridor of this type of sanctity is a 
very subtle splendor, not always obvious to 
the hasty glance. It consists of innumerable 
little shades and touches, which cumulatively, 


no doubt, produce an effect of marked distinc 
tion, but singly and in detail are not impres 

Those who were living with Berchmans had 
no difficulty in catching, so to speak, the mass- 
effect of his minute perfections; and in the 
detailed biographies of the Saint we can cap 
ture in the wealth of material somewhat of 
the profound impression which he made upon 
his contemporaries. It is one of the serious 
limitations of a brief biography of Saint John 
Berchmans that it must be selective in its de 

"If I do not become a saint while I am 
young," John used to say, "I shall never be 
come one." It is the habit-making time when 
man s life is in the spring. And the forma 
tion of good habits, which is another name for 
perfection, requires all the energy and spirits 
of mettlesome youth at its best. Sanctity is 
the greatest force in the world. It can send 
its currents to the outermost confines of time 
and space, stirring into motion the moral in 
ertia of man, to which the dead weight of 
mountains is a trifle. The generation of this 
celestial power may, as in John s case, seem 
a very quiet and tame operation. Just so does 


an electrical power-house, propelling crowded 
cars through distant places, fail, as an exhibi 
tion of mighty forces, to meet our expecta 

The source of John s energy was his love of 
Christ. But it may be remarked that, 
whereas it is comparatively easy to manifest 
love in the big things of life, it requires in 
finite patience, foresight, and the most indomi 
table perseverance to show it in the small 
things of life. Many a man can lay down his 
life for another with whom he cannot live for 
an hour without quarreling over a trifle. It 
has been observed of human love that, while 
it is on the look-out for heroic opportunities 
of proving itself, it wrecks itself on the little 
opportunities, not realizing that the heroic is 
embedded in the commonplace present and 
not in remote contingencies. It is far more 
desirable that my friend should practise the 
little courtesies of the hour in my company 
than that he should be ready to die for me in 
a crisis that will probably never arise. 

The great difficulty in showing our love for 
Christ is that we do not recognize our oppor 
tunities till they are past and gone. We are 
always being surprised into betrayals of our 


love by unforeseen accidents. This is the pre 
cise weakness against which John directed all 
his powers of resistance. It is most interest 
ing to watch him taking every precaution 
against surprise amid the engrossing occupa 
tions of his studies and the distractions of the 
greatest show-city of the world. 

Every noon and every evening, no matter 
where he happened to be, whether in his room 
or on the street, he never omitted the practice, 
enjoined by his rules, of subjecting the inter 
vals to a searching scrutiny of a quarter of 
an hour, to see if anything had gone wrong or 
if something could have been done better. Be 
sides these there were briefer and more casual 
reviews in between, as when on entering his 
room he would bless himself with holy water 
and kneel down for a short prayer. During 
the three days retreat which is made twice by 
scholastics during the working year, besides 
the annual retreat of eight days made during 
the vacation, John spent most of the time in 
drawing up an order of life for the ensuing 
half-year. This order was based on his ex 
perience of the preceding six months. He 
saw what could be improved, noted where 
something else might be added in the way of 


devotions, penances, acts of courtesy and char 
ity, or application to his books. He tried to 
figure out all possible contingencies and to 
make up his mind what would be the best 
thing to do or to say in each case. And his 
spiritual directors tell us that, once he had 
fixed on his plan, nothing could divert him 
from following it to the letter. The business 
of modifying or altering it would not be con 
sidered until the half-year was up. 

"Once," testifies Father Piccolomini, "when 
he was narrating to me what he used to do, be 
ginning with the morning of each day, and 
how many new practices he had kept on add 
ing, I was forced to tell him he certainly would 
not hold out long if he did not stick to the 
principal points merely, and cease taking ac 
count of the smaller details ; for it was exacting 
too much from a head already over-fatigued 
by studies. What I then told him was shortly 

The ominous note in the last sentence is 
something which will be discussed later on. 
Whether it was justified or not it was the last 
thing in the world to act as a deterrent on 
John. Saints are, literally and figuratively, 
the only dare-devils. They are not concerned 


in the least about husbanding life or health. 
Sickness or health, living or dying, is all one 
to them in the pursuit of their high profession. 
They scorn to play safe. This cavalier attitude 
may lead to indiscretions among the young, 
the foolish, and the unguided; but it is abso 
lutely necessary in conditions where unfounded 
and exaggerated fears and nervous apprehen 
sions seem to be the natural motions of human 
nature whenever it is called upon to exert or 
deny itself. In the spiritual life discretion 
may be the better part of valor; but it will 
bear watching lest it be another name for 
cowardice. Many of us gather all our re 
sources of courage for a supreme effort and 
are astonished to discover that we have suc 
ceeded in being merely sensible and normal. 
"May I rather lose my health completely 
than for its sake break a single rule," he wrote 
in his note-book. His prayer to Loyola was 
that he might die without having once vio 
lated a rule of the Society. On the first three 
days of each month he made meditations on 
the rules. It must not be supposed from the 
emphasis laid on John s observance of the 
rules of the Society of Jesus that he was living 
among Jesuits who took their rules lightly. 



They were living under the very eyes of the 
General who frequently addressed them on the 
importance of fidelity to the rules. Among 
teachers and students were future Generals of 
the Order, elected to that high office for their 
known strictness of observance. But the rules 
are framed to cover every moment of a Jesuit s 
life and encourage him to a perfection to 
which no limits are set, except those of Divine 
grace and natural aptitudes. Beyond the es 
sential rules of poverty, chastity, and obedi 
ence, which every religious must observe 
scrupulously, there is a host of minor regula 
tions descending to the smallest minutiae of 
conduct. These give its own special complex 
ion to every religious order, imparting to it a 
pronounced esprit de corps, and, as it were, 
blazing a safe trail of its own up the difficult 
heights of perfection. This network of rules, 
extending into the most secret privacies and 
covering every moment of life, must be main 
tained without eccentricity of manner, or loss 
of magnanimity and nicely balanced judg 
ment, or breaches of charity. 

One can see that an unfaltering attention 
to such rules in their smallest details requires 
not only great grace, but also most extraordi- 



nary prudence, vigilance, and tact. It was 
these qualities which distinguished John at a 
time when the memories of Ignatius, Xavier, 
Aloysius, and Stanislaus were still almost the 
personal reminiscences of living men and in 
a city where their memorials gave actuality 
and force to the system of holiness which had 
made them saints. 



JOHN BERCHMANS had the saints 
usual love of self-affliction. He dreaded 
being the easy-going follower of a cruci 
fied Redeemer. He must have pestered his 
superiors with his importunity for permissions 
to practise private penances: they certainly 
allowed him a latitude which rather opens our 
eyes. He never ate breakfast except on the 
weekly vacation day when he had to walk to 
the scholastics villa outside the city. He 
fasted twice a week, wore a hair-shirt on great 
feasts, and scourged himself three times a 
week. He always sat upright without using 
the back of his, chair, and never availed him 
self of a support when he was kneeling. 

"How do you manage to keep so recol 
lected?" asked a scholastic who lived in the 
same room with him. 



"I try to guard my heart/ replied John, 
"by guarding my eyes." 

We have seen that this was an old practice 
of John s. It suffered no lapse in Rome. 
There were scholastics who had lived for three 
years with him in the Roman College, who had 
never seen his eyes. In a city of gorgeous 
pageants he would not cross the street to wit 
ness the most brilliant and historic cavalcade. 
They sometimes passed him by on the streets 
unseen. He told someone that he felt no par 
ticular difficulty in raising his eyes. We are 
told that his habit of keeping his eyes lowered 
was not awkward or irritating. Whenever he 
was addressed he directed a straight level 
glance for an instant at the person speaking 
to him; and he did the same whenever he ad 
dressed another. His habit of keeping his 
eyes down had a pleasant effect of calm and 
thoughtful composure. 

The purity of his soul and body shone 
through his countenance. One of the citizens 
of Rome, who for obvious reasons withheld 
his name, deposed through his confessor after 
John s death that, whenever he was assailed by 
violent temptations against purity, he used to 
go to the Roman College to look at John from 


a distance, and immediately find rest and 

It is not within the scope of this sketch to 
describe at large the prayers and devotions 
which were at once the causes and the results 
of the eager flame of holy desires urging John 
forward. He had no difficulty in seeing the 
somewhat obvious and commonplace truth 
that life in a religious order is simply intoler 
able to any man of honest aspiration and spirit 
unless he cultivate habits of prayer. The 
practices formed in the novitiate at Mechlin 
were maintained and enlarged by John every 
year. Some of the more cynical of his breth 
ren in Rome said when he first came there 
that his piety would cool as he approached the 
end of his juniorate, and the memories of the 
novitiate began to dim. On the contrary, it 
increased right along. 

He was conspicuous for his devotion to our 
Lady. He let everyone know about it, and 
tried to sweep them along with his enthus 
iasm. He composed the following device for 
himself: "Thou, my Mother, Mary, ever Vir 
gin, art the patroness of my holiness, my 
health, and my studies." He originated the 
devotion of the Rosary of the Immaculate 



Conception. The dogma of the Immaculate 
Conception was not to be declared for more 
than two centuries after his death. In John s 
time it was still a subject of animated contro 
versy. The fervor and sureness of vision in 
his devotion to the Blessed Virgin may be 
gathered from his practice of saying a Hail 
Mary in honor of the Immaculate Conception 
before every meal, and from the following 
declaration found among his papers: 

"I, John Berchmans, most unworthy child 
of the Society of Jesus, protest to thee and to 
thy Son, Who I believe and confess, is here 
present in the most august Sacrament of the 
Eucharist, that always and forever, unless the 
Church judgeth otherwise, will I be the sup 
porter and defender of thy Immaculate Con 
ception. In faith of which I have subscribed 
this with my blood, and signed it with the seal 
of the Society of Jesus. 

"A.D. 1621. 


We have already adverted to his devotion to 
Saint Joseph. After the Holy Family his 


favorite intercessors were his Guardian Angel, 
Saint John, the Beloved Disciple, Saint Ig 
natius, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Aloysius, 
and Saint Stanislaus. These four saints of 
the Society had not yet been canonized. Ig 
natius and Xavier were to be canonized the 
year after John s death, and it is hard not to 
wish that the canonization had been a year 
earlier merely that we might read the record 
of John s delight. 

John s industry as a compiler of note-books 
was exercised to a large extent in Rome in 
collecting such bits of information about the 
lives and labors of Jesuits as would stimulate 
him in his prayer and work*. It was a most 
congenial task. Association with older men 
of wide information at the headquarters of 
the Society afforded him rich opportunities to 
glean interesting facts. Father Cepari tells 
us that some of the older Jesuits in Rome told 
him they had never met a better-posted man 
than John on the domestic history of the So 

Besides contributing to his own pleasure and 

edification, these items of information served 

another useful purpose, which John described 

to a Polish scholastic in the college. "If you 



want to introduce spiritual conversation both 
pleasantly and easily, read the history and 
annals of the Society. Because these, as they 
are all our own, give pleasure to all. I have 
made such a collection of facts that you could 
not bring up any subject that I could not illus 
trate by the example of someone connected 
with the Society." 

One can understand how John was no pietis- 
tic bore, although he made it a rule never to 
speak in recreation on any subject other than 
God and His service. Father Gottofredi, a 
future General of the Society, who was a 
fellow-student of John s, tells with charming 
frankness that the Saint induced him to make 
a similar compact with himself, and how some 
times, when he did not feel equal to carrying 
it out, he would try to avoid John. But, if 
John cornered him, he took so much pleasure 
in the ensuing chat that he wondered at his 
previous reluctance. 

One other use which John found for his 
copious notes may be mentioned. He organ 
ized among the scholastics a little circle, 
which met for an hour on villa-days for the 
discussion of spiritual topics. One of the mem 
bers would give a definition of some virtue 


and indicate any rule of the Society which 
might be concerned with it. Then someone 
would be appointed to explain its interior and 
exterior exercise. A third member would col 
lect motives for practising the virtue; a fourth 
would draw up a practical programme of ways 
and means for its exercise; while the last man 
in the discussion gave illustrious examples of 
its practice from history and contemporary 
life. During the week allowed for the prepa 
ration of this material John very likely conned 
his note-books for striking instances. And one 
cannot but perceive that he had in this weekly 
meeting hit upon an excellent device for add 
ing to what one of the fathers called his "bag 
ful of stories." 



ONE of the difficulties of an artist is to 
make his art an expression of life. It 
must be related to reality, or remain 
false and meretricious. And the same is true 
of the great art of sanctity. It is easy to prac 
tise heroic holiness in an ideal region of the 
imagination which lacks all contact with life 
in the rough. Many men and women, whose 
lives will not bear a very searching scrutiny, 
can formulate the most beautiful moral stand 
ards in poems and novels and social converse. 
The energy and intensity of their passion for 
moral perfection seem to exhaust themselves 
early on the road to performance, so that when 
the time comes to act no energy or intensity 
remains. As if an athlete were to go back a 
mile to take a running jump. 

A very noticeable trait of John Berchmans 


life after he had taken his vows was the open 
ness and candor of his pursuit of holiness. He 
made no secret of his aspirations to be a saint. 
Why should he? Everyone ought to be a saint. 
It was our principal business on earth. He 
never liked the demonstrative exuberance of 
the Italians: at least he would not adopt any 
of it himself, and one of his private rules was 
never to congratulate anyone in the academic 
triumphs of the college. There were sure to 
be occasions, he reasoned, when congratula 
tions would be unavoidable and would have 
to be more or less insincere. But honest Flem 
ing that he was, it is doubtful whether he 
would have admired what has been called 
Anglo-Saxon reticence in piety. It is not im 
probable that he would have deemed it a char 
acteristic expression of Protestant pride and 
the beginning of worldliness. 

John did not care how many people knew 
he was trying to be a saint. The more who 
knew it, the better. They might be able to 
help him. And he might be able to help them. 
He was not* voluble; but he could talk well; 
and, if there was occasion, he never minded 
speaking freely about his own experiences in 
the search for perfection. He absolved his 


confessors from the obligation of secrecy in 
the matter of his own confessions. Sanctity 
was life itself to him, and he made no effort to 
separate them. He took every opportunity to 
commit himself before all the world to a 
strenuous policy of personal sanctification. 

A life like this, led in the open as it were, 
might be expected to afford occasions for van 
ity or chagrin. It is one of the strange and 
inexplicable things in the life of the marvelous 
boy that, as he never felt a temptation against 
purity, so he seldom, if ever, experienced the 
slightest inclination to be either self-complac 
ent or melancholy. One might explain it by 
saying that his mind was so fixed on Christ 
and eternity that all human considerations 
were without significance to him. But the 
difficulty recurs when we see the elaborate and 
wise provisions which he made against temp 
tations to impurity, pride, vanity, and low 
spirits. One would think he had had the per 
sonal experiences of ten lives behind him. 

For most of us temptations keep the spirit 
ual life active. Without them we should re 
sign ourselves to a pleasant respectability in 
which worldliness plays a more prominent 
part than divine grace. Not so with the saints. 


The special favors and graces which they re 
ceive from heaven, increase their sense of re 
sponsibility, and place them under greater 
obligations of holiness. They are like the 
great geniuses in poetry, painting and music. 
A great genius is not a man who takes less 
trouble with his art because he has superior 
aptitudes in it. His very aptitudes urge him 
to take greater pains than others to overcome 
the obstacles to perfection in his art. 

Let us not miss the significance and beauty 
of a life like John s by saying that it was easy 
for him to be a saint since he had no trials. 
A moment s reflection is enough to convince 
us that it is harder to become a saint without 
trials than with them. 

It is not altogether true to say that John had 
no trials. His trials came from the little 
things of life in which the warfare is more 
constant, more monotonous, and less engross 
ing than in the big things, a warfare so trying 
that most of us avoid it by an early surrender. 
We are satisfied with an impressionistic ap 
proximation to holiness and cultivate an ama 
teur s supercilious indifference to little details. 

This short study of John Berchmans has 
called attention with perhaps tiresome itera- 


tion to the importance which he attached to 
what are carelessly called the smaller perfec 
tions. As the smaller perfections are the very 
essence of every finished work, they must 
necessarily be of prime importance in any 
study of a saint. Apart from its vivid bio 
graphical color, therefore, the following docu 
ment among John s papers could hardly be 
omitted in any description of his sanctity. In 
it he drew up a list of the things that displeased 
him in others, and of the things that pleased 
him, as follows: 

"Take care not to do what displeases you in 
others even in natural actions: 

"Spitting displeases me. 

"Slowness and sluggishness in moving about 
displease me. 

"Freedom in speech, even about spiritual 
matters, displeases me. 

"Frequent contradictions displease me. 

"Being too dainty displeases me. 

"Freedom in conversation displeases me. 

"An ironical way of talking displeases me. 

"Keeping one s hands behind one s back dis 
pleases me. 



"Looking back carelessly in the street dis 
pleases me. 

"Moving one s head about without cause 
displeases me. 

"Bursting out into laughter, shouting, laugh 
ing immoderately displease me. 

"Talking in the refectory, in the church, in 
the sanctuary, at times when it is for 
bidden, displeases me. 

"Notice what pleases you in others, and imi 
tate them in that: 

"I like in our Father General his modesty, 
affability, cordiality and joyful face; 
and his following in all things the order 
of the community. 

"In Father Provincial, his love of litera 

"In Father Rector and the Spiritual Father, 
their being always the same. 

"In Father Prefect of Studies, his respect 
for all. 

"In my professor (Father Piccolomini), his 
affection and his delight in the progress 
of his scholars in their studies. 

"In Father - - (the name here and in 
the succeeding instances was omitted 


in the early biography of Father 
Cepari), his patience in sickness. 

"In Father , his silence. 

"In Father - , his modesty and bashful- 
ness and love of solitude. 

"In Father - , his zeal for souls, which 
never grows weary. 

"In Father - , his love of his room and 

"In Father - , his love of the Institute 
(of the Society). 

"In Father - , his amiability and af- 

"In Father - , his joyousness, even with 
all his spirituality. 

"In Father , his being the servant of 

all, cheerful and hard-working. 

"In Father - , offering himself to be 
the companion of all. 

"In Mr. - - (one of his scholastics) , his 
avoiding idleness. 

"In Mr. , his readiness to take any 
one s place in an emergency. 

"In Mr. , his liveliness. 

"In Mr. , his meekness and tractabil- 




"In Mr. , his cleanliness and kind 
ness to guests. 

"In Mr. , his sincerity. 

"In Mr. , his giving to everything its 

own allotted time. 

"In Mr. , his visiting the sick. 

"In Mr. , his devotion. 

"I like exterior gladness with great regu 

"I like visiting the Blessed Sacrament be 
fore and after classes. 

"I like saluting the Blessed Virgin, and vis 
iting the venerated chapel of Saint Ig 
natius at the villa. 

"I like not plucking even a blade of grass 
when at the villa. 

"I like giving leave to the companion who 
shares your room to do what he pleases 
without minding you. 

"I like letting myself be ruled like a baby a 
day old. 

"I like doing heartily and for all you are 
worth whatever you do. 

"I like the hands being held together before 
the breast and not hanging down." 

This rather exhaustive list of a saint s likes 
and dislikes ought to be a document of absorb- 


ing interest to all sorts of readers. One learns 
from it the curious fact that it is possible to 
detect more of the vital peculiarities of the 
life around us with our eyes cast down than 
by staring at everything. 



THE list of likes and dislikes in the 
preceding chapter will help us to 
understand the general consensus of the 
testimony about John s amiability in spite of 
his stern and uncompromising principles of 
conduct. The practice of perfection can sel 
dom be said to arrive at extraordinary excel 
lence unless it succeeds in making itself 
pleasant and attractive. This last touch of 
perfection carries with it the endorsement of 
sanity and sterling common sense, without 
which sanctity exposes itself to the suspicion 
of eccentricity and fanaticism, and repels sym 
pathetic attention. 

We might suppose that John s great gifts of 
nature and grace, and his superior success in 
living up to the rules of his Order, would tend 
to make him dissatisfied and impatient with 
the comparative limitations of his associates. 



His superiors and confessors, men of marked 
sanctity, have acknowledged that his confi 
dences used to make them feel by contrast with 
him the shame of their own imperfections. 
Yet, there is no word to describe John s ad 
miration and attachment for the Society of 
Jesus except the word, passionate. His atti 
tude towards his associates was that of Saint 
Aloysius, which, in the last letter he ever 
wrote, John thus refers to in terms of admir 
ing approval: 

"Once, when Father Mutius Vitelleschi was 
taking recreation with our beatified brother, 
the conversation turned on the excellence and 
dignity of our Society. Blessed Aloysius said 
that the excellence and beauty of the Society 
seemed to him such, that he would have been 
content to pass even through hell to look at it 
but for once." 

Nowhere is it reported that John lived a life 
apart from his fellow-scholastics. If his life 
was singular in its heroic quality of holiness, 
he contrived somehow to subdue its splendor 
to the external tone of normal procedure. His 
relations with his brothers in religion were 
easy and natural. As we already know, he 
had no fondness for games, preferring a quiet 



talk with someone. But if the scholastics were 
short of players in a kind of croquet which 
they were accustomed to play at the villa, 
John, we are told, was always ready to lend a 
hand. It will surprise us to learn that he used 
to make the sign of the cross before every 
stroke, which would indicate that he did his 

Like many hard workers he always seemed 
to have time to assist others. He willingly 
helped fellow-scholastics in their studies, and 
found for himself frequent opportunities for 
helping out in the kitchen and other domestic 
departments. In his first year of novitiate at 
Mechlin he had charge of the lamps. When 
he came to the Roman College he urged his 
previous experience and skill in this important 
field of activity, and obtained the position of 
"lampadarian" in the large and many-corri- 
dored college. It was an onerous duty for any 
one going through a severe grind of studies; 
but the fact that the Blessed Aloysius had had 
the same task in the same house forty years 
before, converted it into a privilege for John. 
Among other leakages of his time, if the phrase 
may be used, was the habit his .superiors had 
fallen into of sending him out with the scholas- 



tics whenever they went abroad and needed a 
companion according to their rule. It is likely 
that John was chosen on these occasions by 

John s humor was never boisterous. It had 
a quiet, chuckling quality which we can detect 
in some of the incidents which he collected 
for his "bagful of stories." 

"Father Henry Sommalius," he writes, 
"once rushed down the stairs by Blessed Igna 
tius room; the Saint came out and reproved 
him sharply. Ever after, when he had to pass 
the Saint s room, he carried his shoes in his 

"A Father of the Society," he notes again, 
"by name John Baptist Alexandri, noticing 
that a scholastic was melancholy, asked to have 
him as his companion on the way to the villa. 
He took the scholastic down a side road and 
asked him to take a run, saying: I need a little 
exercise; come, let s have a run. They both 
set off at a great rate, after which the scholas 
tic felt better." 

The last story we shall extract from John s 
bag is not without a touch of gentle cynicism. 
"Someone said to Father Ledesma when he 
was dying, Father, you are still needed here 


for the welfare of the Church. Father Le- 
desma looked sharply at the speaker and re 
plied, Teter and Paul are dead, and the 
Church has suffered no harm. J 

Our final picture of John is of a well- 
favored, fresh-faced youth, deferential, con 
siderate and kindly; not thrusting himself for 
ward; indeed, preferring to be in the 
background, but without morbid shyness and 
with a manly readiness to take his part at the 
front without fear or self-consciousness. He 
is not prodigal of speech, but his conversation 
has charm and is pitched in a low and well- 
modulated tone. He has no affectations or 
mannerisms, and yet strangers mark his dis 
tinction of carriage and manners. His coun 
tenance has a certain cherubic quality 
suggesting the self-possession of a soul whose 
affairs are in order, and which is in constant 
contact with eternity. He turns a cheerful 
face to the world; and, while his movements 
are not impetuous, in their considered deliber- 
ateness they hint at a sort of leashed alacrity. 
His young gravity and quiet demeanor seem 
to be banking interior fires of white intensity. 
Behind the lowered eye-lids his soul communes 
with God, and is fixed upon eternity; a quick 



glance, whenever occasion calls, is sufficient 
to maintain easy and natural contact with the 
world and to help him to take his part in it 
with intelligence and decision. 



IN a preceding chapter Father Piccolomini 
was quoted as being of the opinion that 
John s untimely death was due to his prac 
tice of continually adding new items to his 
list, already over-long, of prayers, private de 
votions, and self-imposed spiritual austerities 
and obligations. The opinion of one who is so 
distinguished, and who enjoyed such intimate 
association with the Saint, deserves respectful 
consideration. Yet, it is surprising how little 
the available evidence, concerning the death 
of the Saint, contributes to the credibility of 
Father Piccolomini s opinion. 

An astonishing feature in John s life is the 
way his body seemed to have little or no 
trouble in offering a fair resistance to spiritual 
fires that should have consumed it. He tried 
it, we should think, beyond endurance, setting 
it to ply a multiplicity of tasks, which kept 


increasing from month to month, whipping it 
to the mark if it was reluctant. His weak 
chest, which prevented him from taking his 
turn reading in the college-refectory, and his 
headaches, may not have been entirely uncon 
nected with his rigorous treatment of himself. 
Still, his general health must have been good. 
Otherwise his superiors could scarcely have 
chosen him to give a public defence of philoso 
phy at the end of his course. It is an ordeal 
which involves not only the credit of the pub 
lic defender, but that of his school also, and is 
never assigned to anyone whose uncertain 
health and unsteady nerves invite disaster un 
der a strain or in a crisis. 

Since early childhood John had never been 
sick a day till about a week before his death. 
It is true, his austerities and high tension may 
have been gradually undermining his physical 
endurance; but, if that were true, there is little 
to indicate it in the evidence before us. The 
ordinary danger-signals of imminent collapse 
were absent. Overwork at a trying season of 
the year, such as might have induced a serious 
sickness in the case of normal health, seems 
to have hastened his end, rather than his rigor- 


ous fidelity to the spirit and rules of his re 
ligious life. 

On March 19, 1621, John passed his final 
examination in philosophy with such brilliant 
success that he was chosen by his superiors to 
give a public defense against all comers in the 
large theological hall of the college. He was 
given about three months to prepare, and on 
July 8th faced a numerous audience, and with 
stood attacks from distinguished scholars and 
professors invited from various colleges in 
Rome to challenge the proficiency of the young 
Jesuit. The work of preparing for a trial of 
this kind is nerve-racking and exhausting; the 
weather, we are told, was oppressively hot. 
But John came through with flying colors. 
He could now enjoy a well-earned leisure 
until such time as he would be assigned his 
work for the coming year. 

During the succeeding weeks his freedom 
from any definite assignment made him a con 
venient recourse when a companion was to 
be chosen for trips across the city. It may 
have been supposed that exercise and fresh air 
would be good for him. It is certain that the 
frequency of these acts of obedience and char 
ity excited remark. The hot streets of a Ro- 


man summer are not invigorating. On July 
31, the feast of Saint Ignatius, John would 
seem to have had some presentiment of death. 
On that day the little slips, containing the 
names of patron saints for the coming month, 
were distributed to the community. John 
read on his slip the words of Saint Mark, 
"Take ye heed. Watch and pray; for ye know 
not when the time is." It was Saturday, our 
Lady s day, and John accepted the sign as a 
message from her. He hastened to Father 
Piccolomini to tell him about it. 

On the following Thursday, August 5, he 
went to the villa with the others, suffering 
from a slight summer disorder common in 
Rome. The following day, the Prefect of 
Studies, not knowing that John was unwell, 
sent him to represent the College among the 
objectors in a public philosophical discussion 
at the Greek College. When he arrived at 
the hall it was discovered that the learned pro 
fessor who was to open the discussion with a 
formal speech, could not be present, and the 
unwelcome honor was forced upon John. 
John s extemporaneous address was so good 
that it was prolonged at the express desire of 
his audience for an hour. After presiding 


over the ensuing discussion he walked back in 
the heat to the Roman College, and that night 
experienced an increase of his disorder with 
accompanying fever. 

On the following afternoon John thought it 
was time, in accordance with the injunction 
of the rule, to inform his superior about his 
illness. He was ordered to bed at once in the 
infirmary, and on Sunday was visited by the 
doctor, who repeated his visit on the morrow, 
finding traces of pneumonia, but not to an 
alarming extent. The patient had not slept 
for three nights, and early on Tuesday morn 
ing his strength began to fail rapidly. Medi 
cal efforts were powerless thereafter. On Fri 
day morning, August the I3th, at eight o clock, 
John died with his eyes fixed upon the cruci 
fix, with his rule-book and his beads clasped 
in his hands, and with the names of Jesus and 
Mary upon his lips. 

During those five days in bed John ap 
peared in a light almost novel to those who 
knew him best. With his body wasting 
and restless through long, sleepless hours, he 
seemed to be under the influence of some strong 
exhilaration, as of a man starting off on a 
pleasure-trip and bidding good-bye in high 


spirits to friends assembled to see him off. His 
approaching departure relaxed the customary 
restraints, and in the intervals of prayer he 
was elated and expansive in manner towards 
all who visited him. Father Cepari s detailed 
account of his sickness gives one the curious 
impression of reading of a grand reception. 
Doctors and superiors would have wished to 
moderate the influx of visitors; but his fellow- 
Jesuits and even strangers, who knew him only 
to the extent of seeing him on the street, were 
so urgent in their entreaties to be allowed to 
see him, and John so eloquent in interceding 
for them, that neither superior nor doctor 
could find the heart to enforce exclusion. 

"We are going, sir, we are going," he said 
in greeting to one of the attending physicians. 


"To heaven." 

"I am sure you will not forget me when you 
get there." 

"Oh, no; I shall pray for you." 

Another form of salutation often used those 
days was, "Good day, brother, good day to 
you. We are off to heaven." 

While he wore a pathetically apologetic air 
for the trouble he was giving everyone, he 


flung away all reserve, and prayed aloud, and 
discussed intimate spiritual matters with those 
who begged private interviews with him. He 
expressed profound gratitude to his superiors 
and brothers, but especially to his "sweetest 
mother, the Society of Jesus." On Wednes 
day, early in the morning, when the Viaticum 
was brought to him by Father Cepari, he flung 
himself upon his knees and pronounced in sol 
emn and spontaneous phrases an act of Faith. 
After receiving the Holy Viaticum and Ex 
treme Unction, during which he answered all 
the prayers in a clear voice, he was seen by the 
assembled community to whisper earnestly to 
Father Cepari. This is what he said to him: 
"If your reverence thinks fit, you may tell my 
Fathers and brothers that the greatest conso 
lation I feel is, that since I have been in the 
Society, I do not recollect having committed 
a deliberate venial sin, nor am I aware that 
I have voluntarily broken a single one of our 
rules, or disobeyed any regulation of my su 
periors. But J leave all to your judgment." 
Father Cepari, we must remember, had 
John s express permission to make whatever 
use he wished of his confessions. It thus hap 
pens that we are allowed to listen to the very 


words of the Saint s last confession. Father 
Cepari had discouraged him from making a 
general review of his life; he then made the 
following simple confession: "I accuse my 
self also of not having been sufficiently grate 
ful to God for the benefits I have received, 
and of not having taken care to excite in my 
self an ardent desire to suffer for Jesus Christ." 
That is all that one of unusually sound judg 
ment, whose vigilance over the motions of his 
soul had been life-long and minute, could 
think of in the way of self-accusation at the 
most solemn moment of life. Death could not 
come to such a one too early or too soon. He 
could laugh in its face. Twice only, and 
briefly each time, he was troubled in what 
seem to have been periods of delirium. His 
favorite posture in bed was lying on his back, 
with his knees raised, so that his crucifix might 
rest where he could see it easily on the sloping 
counterpane, and with his rule-book and his 
rosary in his hands. He was conscious till 
the very end, and died as he had lived in peace- 
fulness and prayer. 




IN view of the comparatively retired life 
led by John in the Roman College an 
academic retirement which was broken 
only on the few occasions when John took his 
turn among the scholastics, as was the custom, 
in teaching catechism on some street-corner 
in Rome we are not prepared for the public 
excitement which his death created through 
out the city. The church where his body was 
laid out, was beseiged by great crowds and 
became the scene of so much frantic disorder 
that the body had to be removed secretly. The 
General of the Society of Jesus was displeased 
at the disturbance, and adopted rigorous meas 
ures to suppress all public recognition of 
John s sanctity which might seem an undue 
forestalling of official ecclesiastical recogni 

Nevertheless, devotion to John became a 



popular private devotion in Rome and the 
Netherlands, and careful and minute enquiries 
were made into his life, and were formally 
drawn up and attested for future action on the 
part of the Holy See. For more than two 
hundred years the cause of John was allowed 
to remain in this incipient stage, until Pope 
Gregory XVI, acting on the favorable report 
of an enquiry made by the Congregation of 
Sacred Rites, declared that John s practice of 
virtue had been heroic. Then came a rigorous 
examination of the miracles alleged to have 
taken place at John s intercession and by the 
application of his relics. This investigation 
ended in reporting that at least three such 
miracles were supported by conclusive evi 
dence. Accordingly, Pope Pius IX published 
the Brief of Beatification on the 9th of May, 
1865, recommending the Blessed John Berch- 
mans as a perfect model for the imitation of 
the young in these perilous modern times. 

John was canonized in 1888, on January the 
i ^th, that year the feast of the Holy Name of 
Jesus. The coincidence takes us back to the 
early school-days of the Saint and to the Latin 
verses in which he strove so laboriously to give 
expression to the burning love in his young 


heart for that sweet Name. Happy, happy 
youth, who could even in childhood pierce 
through the dull mists of mortal vision and 
see and be enthralled forever by the Beauty 
of Christ! 

Pope Leo XIII, in the Bull of Canonization, 
after describing the new miracles found to be 
genuine and historic by the Congregation 
which drew up the report for John s canoniza 
tion, makes, in its concluding paragraph, the 
following solemn appeal: "At this glad tid 
ings, dearest children, let your hearts rejoice. 
Let them congratulate our Holy Mother the 
Church, who, by the action of the Holy Ghost, 
has borne and brought forth so illustrious a 
son to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and 
for your sanctification and protection. May 
one and all show forth humility, obedience, 
chastity, a thorough and abiding profession 
and practice of your duties. Let young men 
especially, under our guidance and patronage, 
do that which tends so much to give hope to 
the Church. and to society at large. Let them 
educate themselves deeply in culture and 
science, and thus show forth the folly of those 
who are ever acquiring knowledge, yet never 
coming to the knowledge of the Truth." 


Alas, many young Catholics, whose culture 
and science were privileges and gifts of the 
Almighty, designed to bring them and others 
closer to Him, have been ruined by their very 
blessings. For, culture and science dim the 
spiritual vision and corrupt the heart wher 
ever sensitiveness of conscience, and humble 
attention to the whisperings of Divine grace 
and to the tiresome calls of small duties, are 
allowed to become objects of neglect and con 
tempt. It is one of the distressing features of 
a Catholic teacher s life, in every age, but es 
pecially our own, to have to witness the culture 
and the science which he strives his best to 
impart, turning in the case of a bright lad to 
the youth s own spiritual destruction and to 
the destruction of others. Science and culture 
are very useful and beautiful, indeed ; but they 
are purely human. And it is the sad experi 
ence of all time that man himself cannot ordi 
narily remain even decently human by the 
employment of merely human agencies. He 
needs God, and Christ, and the Church, and 
the supernatural aids of grace and the Sacra 

The human perfection of Saint John Berch- 
mans could not be forged by human instru- 


ments. Science and culture cannot save a 
man s soul. While they can help him to save 
it, they have a natural tendency to limit his 
horizon to the things of earth, and to make 
him forget his supernatural destiny. May 
Saint John Berchmans obtain for us the grace 
of finding in science and culture what he found 
in them so abundantly, namely, the means of 
advancing in faith, in purity, and in the love 
of Christ.